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Church columnist: Building a biblical vocabulary — Hypocrite

Norm Fields

Contributing columnist

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I saw a meme on Facebook recently that I thought was very clever. It had a picture of a famous actor, as most memes do, with a striking expression of confusion on his face. The text said, “Saying that you don’t go to church because hypocrites are there is like saying you don’t go to the gym because out of shape people are there.”

That would be really funny if it wasn’t such a common excuse. A lot of people, when asked why they don’t go to church, will give this very excuse — it’s not a reason, it’s an excuse. That is, they will say that they don’t go, or quit going, because of hypocrites in the church.

So, does that mean that there are no hypocrites outside the church? Of course there are! There are hypocrites everywhere. The difference is, as the meme points out, just as out of shape people go to the gym to get in shape, so people go to church to learn not to be a hypocrite.

With accusations of hypocrisy being so common one would think it was a well understood word. However, most would probably be surprised to learn that hypocrite isn’t even an English word. It is a compound Greek word transliterated into English.

It comes from the two Greek words hupo, meaning “under,” and krites, meaning “to answer.” So the compound Greek word, hupokrites, means “under answer,” or “answering under.”

The original use of the word was in reference to stage actors. I’ve read a couple different explanations of why the term hupokrites came to be used for actors in ancient Greece.

One was that actors under the stage would speak to the actors on stage in the course of a play. The actors speaking from off stage, i.e. under the stage, were called hupokrites because they were speaking under.

Another theory for how the word came to be used of actors is that ancient Greek actors would use masks to play different characters in a play. The actor was called a hupokrites because he was speaking under the cover of a mask.

Whatever the origin of the association with actors, over the course of time the Greek word hupokrites came to be the common term for actors. Where we would watch a show and praise someone for being a good actor, the ancient Greeks and Romans would praise them for being a good hypocrite. That is, an actor is good because they are talented at pretending to be something they aren’t.

On the other hand, when a person pretends to be something they are not in their daily lives we find it repulsive, not praiseworthy. We use terms like phony, fake, pretender to describe people who are actors on the stage of their own lives.

Jesus used the word hypocrite to describe the religious leaders of His day because they were putting on a show, they were acting, to deceive people into following them (Matthew 23). So the Greek word hupokrites was transliterated into English, as hypocrite, to refer to those who pretend to be something that they are not.

The Bible condemns hypocrisy in no uncertain terms. Jesus strongly rebuked the Jews of His day for being hypocrites (Matt. 23:13-30; 6:2, 5, 16; et al). He gives a clear description of what He is referring to as hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-12.

Christians are supposed to be genuine, sincere, people (1 Corinthians 5:8; 2 Corinthians 1:12; Ephesians 6:5; Philippians 1:10; 1 Peter 1:22). Therefore, hypocrisy is in direct opposition to Christian character.

Are there hypocrites in the church? Yes, sadly there are. But, “do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). There are, no doubt, those in the church that are pretending, or acting, like they believe in the Bible and the Christian lifestyle but that don’t actually live it in their lives because it’s not in their heart (Matthew 15:8).

Wherever there are people suffering the sickness of sin there are going to be hypocrites! There are hypocrites at school, there are hypocrites at work, there are hypocrites in our clubs and social organizations, and there are hypocrites at church.

The difference with the hypocrites at church and the hypocrites at other places is that the ones at church are where they are being taught not to be hypocrites. So, in answer to the often repeated excuse for not being at church on Sunday, would you rather be with recovering hypocrites at church or practicing hypocrites in the world?

Norm Fields is the minister for the Church of Christ Northside meeting at 1101 Hogansville Road in LaGrange. He may be reached at 706-812-9950 or BibleQnA@NormFields.com.