Hypocrisy! It’s a common charge leveled at the church mostly from the outside, from the world. It usually means that our outward behavior does not match our words or beliefs. Sometimes the charge is true and justified, but sometimes it is a misunderstanding of what Christians believe. Either way hypocrisy in the Church needs to be taken seriously and dealt with properly. Would it surprise you to learn that the first charge of hypocrisy in the Church was made against Peter? Yes, Peter the apostle, Saint Peter! And the charge was made by none other than Paul. Here is the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:11-14 ESV)
Here’s the basic story line. Peter was visiting Paul in Antioch and he was easily eating and hanging out with the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians there, but when a group of Jewish-Christians from Jerusalem show up Peter distances himself from the Gentiles. Paul calls him out as being hypocritical. Paul accuses Peter of not acting outwardly with the truth he knew inwardly. You see for a first century Jew eating with Gentiles rendered you ceremonially unclean. You were tainted and could not participate in the Temple sacrifices or rituals. You were outside the Law of God. They genuinely believed that associating with Gentiles was sinful and unacceptable to God. Peter understood that Jewish laws and ceremony were not required for salvation. But it was hard for him to set aside centuries of teaching, belief and practice and accept Gentiles as fully equal. So Peter fell into that same mindset when the Jewish believers came from Jerusalem.
The issue was more important than simply bad behavior or a lapse in Peter’s judgment. Paul uses this incident as a way to introduce justification by faith alone. In Paul’s mind Peter’s behavior threatened the idea that Gentiles did not have to follow Jewish law. If Peter was right in separating from the Gentile believers then he would have been agreeing with the false teachers that taught that the Gentiles were still unclean and unacceptable to God even though they trust in Christ for salvation, they had to submit to the Jewish Law. If left to stand this would have undone everything Paul had taught and the Jerusalem Council affirmed (See Acts 15).
Paul’s argument is that Peter and other believers who followed him in his hypocrisy were compelling or forcing the Gentiles to live like Jews while they themselves were willing to live like Gentiles and exempting themselves from the Law. This is what hurt the Gentiles the most. They were enjoying the liberty in Christ and yet now they were being forced to come under the bondage of the Law. It is no wonder that Paul reacted so forcefully.
Paul had to confront Peter publically because the issue had to be dealt with firmly and in the open in order for the entire church to be set on the right foundation. It was critical to the ongoing health and unity of the church and the proclamation of the true gospel. The foundation of the church was being threatened.
Today, we don’t worry whether we have to follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved. But we do need to make sure that our conduct is “in step with the truth of the gospel”. This is the essence of hypocrisy isn’t it? When my actions are not in step with the gospel, I am being a hypocrite. This applies at all times and in all situations, whether public or private. Is what I think and do in step with the gospel or have I deceived myself (and others)? Does what I do or believe separate me from other, genuine believers? Does it cause me to judge others? Am I more concerned with outward conformity to set of man-expectations or with living in the truth of Jesus? The danger in hypocrisy is in its power to deceive ourselves and others, thinking we are acting righteously, but, in fact, are being unrighteous, judgmental and sinful. It is not only about not succumbing to peer-pressure but also understanding the impact it could have on the way our gospel message is transmitted and understood. We have to act and think consistently with the truth of the gospel.
Is there a time when it is appropriate to separate from some other group that claims to be Christian? I think so. When that group is acting or teaching something that is not consistent with the gospel. Which is why it is so important to have a crystal clear understanding of what the gospel is. I think the question I would ask someone or some church is, “how is a person saved”? And the only acceptable answer is through faith in Christ alone. If there is an “and” or “but” added to that statement then it is not the truth of the gospel. It is not a matter of practices, preferences in worship or style or liturgy. It is whether any of those things are added to Christ to gain salvation.