Why do some church people seem so “phony?”

One answer is fear. Every church is comprised of ordinary human beings, but we often refuse to acknowledge our similarities to each other. We feel as though we ought to rise above our problems—especially temptations.

Yet so often we don’t. And so we regularly fake it for fear of what people will think. We fear that others might pull away from us if they knew the worst about us. This, of course, leads to hypocrisy.

While Jesus hates hypocrisy, he loves us. And so he told us: “Don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly … where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.”[1] He also said, “When you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do.”[2] Jesus was warning us about religious people who valued how they looked more than they valued their relationship to God and to each other.

Can we get past the fear that isolates us and turns us into hypocrites? Yes, but it starts with dangerous honesty.

One of the remarkable things about the Bible is its honesty about its “heroes.” Noah got so drunk he passed out. Abraham was willing to let another man take his wife (twice!) until God intervened. Moses’ anger turned into murder. David had an affair with a married woman and then orchestrated her husband’s death in battle. Yet Hebrews 11 points to these individuals as heroes of the faith. They were ordinary people with big flaws and genuine faith.

The apostle Paul wrote openly about his struggles. “‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,’” he wrote, “and I am the worst of them all.”[3] In another letter he admitted, “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”[4] This caused him to exclaim, “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”[5]

Our faith should be public, but it shouldn’t look “religious.” We are called to be followers of Jesus, even though we won’t follow Him perfectly. And church, of all places, should be a safe environment where we can admit our imperfections, our struggles, our addictions, and our tendency to fail. In other words, it’s a place where we hypocrites can be honest—even about our hypocrisy.

This question Why do church people seem so fake? is rooted in a stereotype. Surely many church attenders are fake. But most of us realize we are on a spiritual journey that started when we turned to Jesus in faith. Our part is to admit our own hypocrisy, ask God to change us, and let our own example of honesty become part of the solution, not a perpetuation of the problem.

[1] Matthew 6:5

[2] Matthew 6:16

[3] 1 Timothy 1:15

[4] Romans 7:15

[5] Romans 7:24–25

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