In the days of Jesus, the Pharisees and the scribes were the leading religious leaders of their community and, as such, were looked to by the people for their understanding of God's word. Yet, it was to them that Jesus gave his harshest rebuke saying, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity" (Matthew 23:27, 28).
The word "hypocrisy" is usually defined as someone behaving differently than what they claim to believe. In a religious sense, a hypocrite is someone who pretends to be righteous by putting on a show of piety before others but who willfully violates God's commandments without remorse. In a stricter sense, a hypocrite is a person who condemns others for engaging in the same bad behavior that they excuse themselves for doing.
Hypocrisy is a trait of human behavior that is almost universally denounced and, for this reason, when people see others who are acting in a hypocritical manner, especially in the church, it is quite natural that they would feel inclined to be critical of such behavior. After all, if Christ condemned hypocrisy why shouldn't we?
Furthermore, a hypocrite is also someone who has a tendency to condemn others for not living up to the standards that Christ has set. This is what the Scribes and Pharisees did, not only to Jesus but to others as well. They went about with a haughty attitude of self-righteousness as though they were somehow better than others, looking down their nose with a condescending, holier-than-thou attitude.
What causes this kind of exalted self-opinion is that the hypocrite is convinced in their own mind that they are living a more godly life than others and are therefore spiritually better than the average person. Understandably, this type of attitude only tends to cause people to become even more critical of those who engage in this kind of behavior.
Because every church has at least one member who is a hypocrite, there are those who deliberately don't come to church because they say they can't stand the hypocrisy they see there. Their reasoning is based on the idea that such people make it hard for them to feel spiritually in tune with God and often contend that they can draw closer to God at home than they can at church.
However, there are several problems with this argument. The first is that in the days of Jesus, He Himself faithfully went to church each Sabbath day as did Paul and all the other apostles. Yet, at the same time, the Pharisees and Scribes, whom Jesus identified as being hypocrites, also faithfully attended these same meetings but that didn't keep Jesus or the apostles from attending church. If we consider ourselves to be followers of Christ then we cannot use hypocrites in the church as an excuse for not going.
But there is a more fundamental flaw in this excuse for not coming to church. By refusing to attend because they don't want to mingle with the hypocrites, such people are being critical of those who are not living the gospel as they should, and, as such, are exhibiting an attitude that's not much different than that of the hypocrite. In effect, what they are actually saying is that they are better than the hypocrite and are too good to be around them. However, while the hypocrite have the same condescending attitude, they at least attend church.
It was Jesus who taught the multitudes to "love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Since this is the way Christians are supposed to behave, those who stay away from church because of not wanting to be around hypocrites are violating the very principles of Christian behavior that they condemn in hypocrites.
For this reason, when someone behaves in this manner, they are not only condemning others for their faults, but they also are unknowingly condemning themselves. The apostle Paul put it this way: "THEREFORE thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things" (Romans 2:1). The Lord Himself has instructed, "And ye shall also forgive one another your trespasses; for verily I say unto you, he that forgiveth not his neighbor's trespasses when he says that he repents, the same hath brought himself under condemnation." (Mosiah 26:31).
The reason we go to church is to learn how to live our life as Jesus did. We go there to learn more about God's word, what it says, what it means, and how it applies in our life. We go to be spiritually uplifted, inspired, and motivated to draw closer to God. We go to gain solace in times of need and to find answers to the problems we face. We also go to be strengthened and taught how to endure the hardships of life.
Just because there are hypocrites in church doesn't change our purpose for attending. The fact that there may be people at church who don't come for the right reason shouldn't prevent us from going and being spiritually fed. To stay away from church because of hypocrites is like saying that because someone else doesn't want to eat then we're not going to eat either.
But there is perhaps a more important reason why the excuse of hypocrisy is not valid for staying away from church and that is because there are far fewer hypocrites in the church than most people imagine.
Before we can call someone a hypocrite we have to be careful how we define that word. If we say that it refers to someone who doesn't live as they preach then, by that definition, all of us are hypocrites because none of us live up to what we say we believe. But Jesus didn't condemn people for failing to live a perfect life. He condemned those who condemned others for not living as the law says. (For a more in-depth look at this subject see Thou Hypocrite ).
But, even by that definition, we need to be careful because the impression we have of others many not be what it appears to us. The most common impression people have of hypocrites is that they have a sense of arrogance about them because they think they're better than others, but that impression may be wrong.
When someone accepts Christ into their heart they are making a commitment to repent of their sins and are at least willing from that time forward to keep the commandments God has given us. Yet, even though none of us perfectly honor that commitment, there are a great many Christians who nonetheless diligently strive to live the gospel of Christ to the best of their ability. In their mind, if they made a promise before God to do as He asks then they feel they have a solemn obligation to live up to that sacred commitment.
However, not everyone takes their baptismal covenants as seriously as others. For some people, instead of being in the world but not of it, they behave as though they want to be in the church but not of it. Instead of devoting their life to God, they still want to devote at least of part of it to the things of the world. These are the people who come to church but don't accept or fulfill their callings, or who don't pay their tithing, or who don't fully keep the word of wisdom, or who are not diligent in obeying other principles of the gospel. Then there are those who only come to church occasionally, perhaps when they need some sort of church assistance.
As a result of their lack of faithfulness it is quite natural for these people to feel a sense of guilt and shame when around those who are dedicated to living the gospel. For this reason they often imagine that active members of the church have the attitude that they're better than others but, in most cases, that's not true. Instead, those who have truly committed their lives to Christ tend to feel that when someone says they accept Jesus as their Savior then they should at least try to honor that sacred promise they made to God. In their mind, if a person claims to be a Christian but isn't willing to do what God asks of them, then they're the real hypocrites.
Those who are faithful in living the gospel are more likely to have the attitude that if they can keep the commandments, as imperfect as they are, then it should be just as easy for everyone else to do the same. Therefore, when they see others failing to live up to their commitments, they have a tendency to interpret that as someone who is deliberately not even trying to honor their baptismal promise.
Because of their own sense of commitment, it is sometimes hard for faithful members to understand why someone would say, "Lord, Lord" and not do as the Lords asks (see Luke 6:46). As such, instead of feeling a sense of pride and arrogance for how well they live the gospel, those who take their commitment to God seriously are more inclined to look upon the unfaithful with a mild form of disdain for dishonoring the promise they made to God.
However, this impression of theirs is not entirely correct either because the truth is that since no one is perfect that means all believers in Christ are struggling, in one way or another and to one degree or another, to overcome something that is not right in their life, and that includes even the president of the Church. When compared to the stature of Jesus, even he falls short of God's glory.
For most faithful members of the Church, we fall even far shorter than does the president of the Church and among the general membership of the Church we find a wide range of faithfulness in living the principles of the gospel. Therefore, each of us is spiritually inferior in some way to someone else and that's to be expected because all of us are at different levels of spiritual growth.
We see this same situation existing in everyday life. Not everyone is a senior citizen. There are also many middle-age adults, young adults and children, all of whom expect to someday become a senior citizen and, given enough time, they will reach that level of maturity. The same is true for our spiritual growth. Each of us are on a spiritual journey and some people choose to move more slowly along that path than others. There are those who take a straight path that leads to God more quickly while others take a longer route where they learn from sad experiences the need to keep God's commandments. Yet, given the fact that we have eternity to keep improving, given enough time, all of us will eventually become more spiritually mature than we are today.
But spiritual growth isn't a simple, straightforward process. Just like each person has talents that are different from others, so also each Christian has spiritual strengths and weaknesses that others don't possess. There are principles of the gospel that are easy for some people to keep but are hard for others to live by and, where one person may be strong in some areas of the gospel, they are also weak in other areas. At the same time, in those areas where they are weak someone else may be strong.
For example, some people are able live the Word of Wisdom with ease while others struggle to overcome their desire for coffee or cigarettes. Some people are fascinated with doing genealogy while others can't seem to become enthused about it no matter how many times they try. Some people seem to have a greater talent for showing compassion than others while some people have an easier time understanding the scriptures. And the same is true concerning the principle of paying tithing, serving faithfully in callings, saying prayers regularly or doing daily scripture study.
Furthermore, growth isn't something that happens in a consistent and constant manner but usually comes in spurts. Many times people reach a point where their growth stops or maybe even goes backwards until something happens that jolts them into moving forward again. What makes this situation even harder to recognize is that all growth, spiritual or otherwise, usually occurs so gradually that we often don't see it happening. For this reason, it's easy to look at others and think that they're not progressing when, in reality, they truly are.
One of the major purposes of life is to face challenges because that's the way we grow, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Yet, having problems can also have the opposite effect in our life. Instead of strengthening us, they can tear us down. Instead of us finding hope during times of adversity, sometimes all we see is despair. But, either way, when we face problems, we always struggle with them and sometimes we don't do as well at handling them as we do at other times. Therefore, whenever anyone has problems, it is a time of painful growth.
When someone is a hypocrite, all that means is that they're going through a time of challenge in their life. While it may not be readily apparent, they are struggling to live the principles, except they're not being very successful at it. Instead of overcoming their pride, they are falling victim to it, often without realizing it. Because of this, they're caught in a trap of their own making and are content to stay there.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about tearing people down but building them up. The most basic principle of the gospel, that is central to all other commandments, is love for God and showing love to others in the same way we love ourselves. In its purest form the gospel is about helping others with their problems.
We are all children of the same Father, which means we all belong to the same family. Before the earth was ever created, each of us agreed to participate in this life we call mortality, along with all of its trials, heartaches, and challenges. No one is spared from experiencing these problems. Adversity is what helps us grow in strength and character and without it there can be no strong spiritual development. That is why this life was deliberately designed to give us an abundance of opportunities for growth in a multitude of ways.
Some of the challenges we face are the result of natural circumstances while others are the consequences of our own actions but, either way, our Father's plan never called for us to face life's problems alone. Since we are all in this situation together, God, our Father has commanded us to reach out to help one another make it through life's difficulties.
Since it's not always easy to know what problems people are dealing with in their life, it's easy to misinterpret their behavior. However, fault finding, complaining, and criticizing others are the opposite of what the gospel teaches. And that applies to how we deal even with hypocrites. No matter what other people do, the gospel of Christ teaches us to give a helping hand to those in need. Since each of us are in need, in one way or another, that includes everyone.
Someday each of us will have to stand before the bar of Christ and give an account of what we did. When that time comes we won't be judged for what others did to us but what we did for others. That will be the only thing of significance the Lord will look at when He reviews our life.
Life is like a test in school and the purpose of all tests is to show us how much we've learned. In this case, we are being tested to see how much we have learned to become like Christ. Judgment day is when our test is graded and we get to see how well we did. To stay away from church because we might encounter a few, genuine hypocrites, is to rob ourselves of opportunities to put into practice the things the gospel teaches.
When viewed in this light we should be grateful that there are hypocrites in the Church.