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When people are asked what they think most accurately characterizes the church, a majority replies, “Hypocrisy.” This is a sad commentary on the church. However, we have in many ways earned it. While my subject is missions and hypocrisy, one thing is clear — we do not have to go to the foreign mission field to find hypocrisy. Though hypocrisy exists on the foreign mission field, it exists on the home mission field as well.

The church often engages in missions by sending missionaries who cannot speak the language and who know little or nothing about the culture, traditions, and values of the people to whom they are sent. They go off on a fairy tale missions adventure in a fantasy foreign land they know nothing about. Add to this that these missionaries often have never led a single person to Jesus Christ at home or have never even brought anyone to their home church. Even so, off they go to win converts in a foreign land, with a foreign culture, and a foreign language. This is a recipe for disaster. This is also a recipe for hypocrisy. These missionaries know nothing about the people, yet they have to live with a pretense of a knowledge-filled concern for them. Very soon, their life is just pretense. They recluse themselves in a compound of their own people and wind up having almost nothing to do with the people to whom they were sent to minister.

I remember when I preached in the International Church in Tokyo. I noticed that not a single Japanese person was attending. When I asked the pastor about this, he told me that the missionaries had enough of the Japanese during the week and did not want them around on the Lord’sDay.

My experience there reminded me of a pastor who, speaking of himself, said at a pastor’s meeting: “I can talk the talk, but I can’t walk the walk.” At least he was honest about it. It is a sad day indeed when a godly servant of Christ reaches the point of no longer walking the walk. He is on the slippery slope of hypocrisy.

Even non-Christian authors have captured the all-too-real reality of hypocrisy in Christian missions. Such is the case with the bestseller and Oprah Book Club selection The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara King-solver. I believe every person going into missions should read this book.

We all have preconceived notions about what hypocrisy is. A hypocrite is an actor who plays a role that is not him. He is a Sir Laurence Olivier or a Sir John Gielgud in real life, playing a role, of which nothing is really him.

Jesus shows us the surprising essence of hypocrisy through His encounters with the Pharisees. He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides” (Matt. 23:13–16).

When Jesus says that the Pharisees “shut the kingdom of heaven” (v. 13), He is using a metaphor to say that they have ceased to be compassionate and loving. The ultimate manifestation of hypocrisy is to withhold the heart of God from desperate people, all the while pretending to extend it. These representatives of God will not go in themselves. They refuse to bring God’s love to needy sinners. When they see hearts opening to God, they will not “allow those who would enter to go in” either (v. 13).

They are hypocrites and pray only to appear as holy, not to draw either themselves or the people close to God. Jesus says that they “travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte” (v. 15). The Pharisees’ pretense of holiness involves worldwide missionary endeavor. This is truly amazing! These men run around the world to make even a single convert, but in the end this unfortunate convert is doubly dead. He is “twice as much a child of hell” as the Pharisees are (v. 15).

How can this be? These poor souls are now converts of a false “religion.” They have committed their lives to a religious system that bears no resemblance to biblical truth but which they think is the truth. They have embraced a religion of works and of judgment, a harsh, merciless, compassionless monstrosity out of hell. Worst of all, they think they are right and that everyone else is wrong.

These Pharisees are “blind guides” (v. 15). Their lives and their messages are a web of deceit for others and self-deceit for themselves. They offer God to the people, but they are simply pretending. Jesus’ message to these self-deceived deceivers is simple: “Woe to you…hypocrites” (v. 13). Those who follow these hypocrites are following men who have no idea of the horrible place to which they are leading them.

Lest we think that this is just a plague on their house two thousand years ago, let us not be deceived. Hypocrisy is every bit a snare today for the church and its mission, just as it was for the leadership of God’s people back then. The church today is at a watershed moment. After fighting for a century to uphold the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible, it seems as if the church no longer even cares about the Bible. We are too busy to read God’s Word, let alone study and meditate on it. We are too busy and far too undisciplined to live out and put into action even what we do know to be true in our lives.

Instead of our standard being the Word of God, our standard is whatever appeals, attracts, and draws people into our churches. This is disgraceful! We have the inspired Word of God and instead of using it, we are leading people into churches filled with entertainments, activities enough to take them through two lifetimes, and self-help programs that even the American Psychological Association would be pleased to endorse. All the while, our Bibles sit gathering dust in our pews and on our coffee tables. One would never know the centrality the Bible is to have in the church.

What good is it to be in a church that is abandoning day by day the power, authority, sufficiency, and infallibility of the Word of God in order to mimic and appeal to the world? We have forgotten the appeal of our Savior. Instead, we try to make ourselves appealing to the world.

In mimicking the world, we live a lie. We are acting. We become so good at our act that we forget (if we ever knew in the first place) who we really are and how Jesus really calls us to live. How can we ever see our mission really blessed by God if our focus is on how we look, how appealing and palatable our message comes across, how attractive we can make the gospel appear to people, and so on?

Do you want to break free from hypocrisy? Return to Jesus and His Word. And there was “no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). We need to really know God’s Word and what His Word says. To do this, we need to know how to study His Word, and then we need to actually study His Word. Only out of this basis can we ever be the missionaries God calls us to be.

The only way we can avoid being hypocrites is to have God’s Word as the centerpiece of our churches’ lives, not the centerpiece of our coffee tables. If we will not live God’s Word, then we are not really calling people to God and His Word. We are calling people instead to a pretend gospel. We are not really calling people to the Word of God but to an imitation that attracts everyone but saves no one. We are calling people to a life of playacting rather than a life of living.

In doing so, we leave people thinking “this is the real thing,” not knowing anything different or anything otherwise. Soon we become blind guides leading the blind. We become blinder yet. We slowly give up one truth after another for the stupidity of being “appealing” and “relevant” to a world that hates God. This is what we choose to do rather than being biblically forthright and bold, preaching the Word of God to people everywhere.

Let us not be confused. We will never impact the world for Jesus with a relativized, wimpy, fear-driven, people-pleasing “gospel.” We will never be able to battle against the forces and powers of hell to free hell’s captives (Luke 4:18) with this mindset. We are called to live a life directed by the Holy Spirit. He works in us through God’s Word and enables and empowers us to live the truth and to present the truth, today and every day. The choice for us and for the church is simple — hypocrisy or biblical Christianity.