Hypocrisy in High Places

by

I live and work in a small group of islands just off the northwest coast of Scotland. The Western Isles has a population of about 35,000 people, similar in culture and language, but diverse in religion: the northernpart of the archipelago is predominantly Protestant, while the southern half is predominantly Roman Catholic.

When a local man was elevated to the episcopate as Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles in 1991, there was an understandable pride throughout the Western Isles of Scotland. Gaelic-speaking, media-savvy, a man of the people, everybody’s friend — Bishop Roddy Wright was the face of the local Roman Catholic Church in the Western Isles during the early part of the 1990s.

The disappointment of the diocese was palpable when, in 1996, Bishop Roddy resigned from his office to marry a divorcée. For weeks the media attention was unrelenting, and it escalated when it was discovered that the bishop had previously fathered a son to another woman — a son who had been born in England in 1981 and who was ten years old when he accepted the bishopric.

In his moving autobiography, Feet of Clay, Roddy Wright (who died of cancer in 2005) acknowledges that he should never have accepted office: “My shame,” he wrote, “is that I did not face up to my responsibilities at that time. …I never confessed my secret to anyone and buried myself in my work — a crazy escape route” (p. 160). When the secret did finally emerge, it undid what had been, until then, a zealous and energetic ministry among loyal members of the diocese.

Sometimes our Protestantism has fared no better. Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism is the tragic memoir of a minister’s wife who lost her faith on account of her husband’s two-facedness. David Cross was one of fundamentalism’s rising young stars when he became pastor of a church near Seattle. He was everything the movement idealized, his early preaching “a spellbinding adventure packed full of anecdotes, challenges and nuggets of wisdom” (p. 34).

However, the busyness of pastoral ministry soon disguised a gradual addiction to pornography and alcohol, a “dark side” that “could grow unimpeded” (p. 142). No one knew about it; it was sheltered behind the facade of a successful ministry. His disillusioned wife describes her husband, with his “Halloween mask of amiable minister in the tailored suit of Dr. Jekyll, morphing effortlessly the next second into the dark-cloaked Mr. Hyde. The temptations of both — the sacred and the profane — great, seducing dividers embraced in the same flesh.” And she adds: “He loved this life of doubles” (p. 146).

Much the same story is told — but with a happier ending — by Clay and Renee Crosse in their memoir, I Surrender All. Clay Crosse was one of the leading Christian singers of the 1990s. His song, from which the book gets its title, catapulted him into big-league Christian entertainment. His subsequent confession to his wife that he had become addicted to pornography led to a time of deep personal self-examination, godly sorrow, and repentance.

Crosse writes, “I lived this double life for nearly two years with hardly a pang of conviction. …I could sit in church and hear sermons against sin without ever thinking I might need to make a change in my life. …Not once did I stop and think about how I was poisoning my soul” (p. 42). The poison was administered through deception; Crosse admits that, even though he knew his actions were wrong, he justified himself through the success he was enjoying and assured himself that God was speaking to him in his achievements. “I thought He was telling me how pleased He was with me and how much He wanted to bless me” (p. 49). Crosse was to discover, however, that God spoke more to him through the pain of losing his voice, which led to confession of his sin both to God and his wife, and a fruitful ministry toward those who battle with the same demons Crosse faced.

The secular world, of course, has had its fair share of the same demons, and the world hates the whiff of hypocrisy. In March 1963, the Secretary of State for War in the United Kingdom, John Profumo, stood up to make a personal statement in the House of Commons. This followed months of speculation about his involvement with Christine Keeler, a showgirl and actress who had also been the paramour of a senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Profumo declared to the House and to the nation: “There was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler,” and he went on to threaten anyone who suggested otherwise with writs of libel.

The subsequent disclosure that this was a lie and that Profumo had been involved in a sexual relationship with Keeler led to the toppling of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government. The whole business resonates with a more recent political scandal involving former President Bill Clinton and his sworn statement regarding Monica Lewinsky: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Playing loose with his definitions, he later admitted that his behavior was not as impeccable as he had suggested.

More than once in his autobiography, My Life, Bill Clinton simply stated that in the middle of all that was going on, “I went on doing my job” (p. 775). But he also admits, “I was engaged in two titanic struggles: a public one with Congress over the future of our country, and a private one to hold the old demons at bay. I had won the public fight and lost the private one” (p. 811).

How can we profit from this? We are all within an inch of succumbing to the same delusion that it is possible to be one thing in one context and something else in another. The real danger lies in the deception that whispers that we are safe behind the mask of hypocrisy. Paul counsels, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). The problem is not the standing but the thinking that we can never fall. How can we safeguard ourselves against collapse?

First, by examining ourselves. Part of the function of Genesis 38, with its tawdry tale of Judah’s immorality, is to contrast with Joseph’s integrity in the household of Potiphar in Genesis 39. The brother who remains at home slips easily into double-standards; the brother who is in Egypt remains faithful to God even when sin comes with enticement and opportunity. When his master’s wife tries to seduce him, Joseph refuses with the question: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). He pays a heavy price for his integrity, of course, but he would rather languish in an Egyptian prison with a clear conscience than walk abroad in Canaan with a guilty one.

How do we measure by these exacting standards? Do we remember that to God, before whose face we are called to live, “the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps. 139:12)? Let us repent of our readiness to live one kind of life before men while we are something entirely different before God!

Second, by guarding our hearts. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). King Uzziah was one of the great kings of Judah, and “as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chron. 26:5). Yet his prosperity eased his conscience when his heart swelled with pride, and he took it on himself to burn incense to the Lord, which was the prerogative of the priests alone. When he would not take the counsel of others, the king, for all his good influence and political legacy, died alone, as a leper, because “the Lord had struck him” (v. 20). He had discovered too late that it is far easier to govern a kingdom than to govern a heart. Yet unless we attend to the issues of our heart — to our relationship with God, our prayer life, our study of Christ in His Word, mortifying the flesh, growing in grace — we too will fall into the trap of disguising the rottenness of our souls by the busyness of our lives.

Third, by walking in the steps of Christ. He remains the measure of men, and His life of perfect integrity, as He lived before God for men and before men for God, remains our pattern and example. Peter enjoins us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22–23). Hypocrisy ruins lives, damages reputations, unsettles consciences, and compromises principles. The person whose mind is settled on the Lord knows something the hypocrite never can: the blessing of perfect peace (Isa. 26:3). That is something precious, something worth guarding jealously.

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