In response to an objection to Christianity that has been raised by several sceptics recently, I have decided to publish publicly the first section of chapter 11 of my book, Finding God When He Seems to be Hiding. The chapter is entitled, Christians Behaving Badly, and the first section is as follows:
A significant speed bump in some people’s quest to find God is the abhorrent behaviour of some who claim to be Christians. Perhaps you have been turned away from Christianity by such people, yourself. You may have encountered people who claim to be Christians, but whose lives contradict the profession of their faith. There are people who claim to be Christians who have affairs, who are greedy and dishonest, who lie and cheat and steal, who have bitter hearts and poisonous tongues. Even worse, some so-called Christians commit the most heinous crimes, including sexual abuse and paedophilia.
In recent decades, media reports and various investigations have brought to light many examples of this kind of appallingly sick behaviour amongst both laity and clergy, and I suspect that this is one of the factors that has led to the wholesale rejection of religion by a large and growing percentage of people within Western society. There are many people who feel disillusioned and betrayed by religion because of this kind of seemingly endemic behaviour. In order to respond to this issue, let me start by telling you a story.
For many years, my wife and I were staunch supporters of our regional football (soccer) team, the Central Coast Mariners. We were paid-up platinum members of the club, with reserved seats in the grandstand. At one of the first home games we ever attended, there was some very poor behaviour amongst a small group of Mariners supporters in the grandstand on the far side of the ground. They were obviously intoxicated and were abusing the nearby opposition supporters, using obscene language and throwing beer at them.
After the match, as they emerged onto the nearby streets, they started a brawl, necessitating the police arresting some of them. It was a disgraceful exhibition of hooliganism, and I remember our children, who were young at the time, being quite scared by it. Let us suppose that some passers-by on the street witnessed this disgusting behaviour. While they might justifiably condemn this behaviour and be repulsed by it, it would be completely irrational of them to reach any of the following conclusions:
• All Mariners supporters are like this.
• This kind of behaviour accurately reflects the ethos and values of the Mariners Football Club.
• The Mariners football team, therefore, does not exist, because no real football club would permit such behaviour amongst its members.
No sensible person would make these kinds of irrational assumptions based upon the poor behaviour of some supporters. Yet, these are exactly the kinds of assumptions that are often made in regard to Christianity, based upon the abhorrent behaviour of some “supporters”. The obvious hypocrisy of some so-called Christians leads many people to conclude that;
• Most Christians are hypocrites
• Christianity has no moral merit
• There is no God, because a God who actually exists would never allow such behaviour amongst His followers
The first thing to say in response to all this is to point out that the merits of any religion must be evaluated on its actual teachings rather than on the contradictory behaviours of some who profess to be adherents. In the case of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus Christ are utterly opposed to the kinds of appalling behaviour that some who claim to be Christians exhibit. Jesus and the New Testament writers all proclaimed that those who follow God should turn from sin and live wholesome lives that honour God. They spoke of turning from sexual sin, from greed, from hatred and from selfishness. They spoke of living lives that are characterised by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the teaching of true Christianity and it is this kind of teaching that must be evaluated if Christianity is to be fairly assessed.
What can we say, then, about those who call themselves Christians yet flagrantly flout the teachings of Jesus? We must conclude that there is a very strong possibility that they are not Christians at all. Jesus made this very point when He said, “If you love me you will obey my commands” (John 14:15). A few verses later, in that same passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus repeats this important declaration; “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23-24). Later in the New Testament, this message is repeated, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). In other words, the true test of whether someone is a Christian, is not what they profess with their lips, but how they live their lives. This is what Jesus was referring to when He said;
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-20).
This passage reveals just how abhorrent hypocrisy is to God. Those who claim to know Him but clearly do not and who bring His Holy Name into disrepute by their unholy lives will eventually suffer the fire of His wrath. While we might detest hypocrisy, God detests it even more!
There is an important message here for seekers and sceptics who have been turned away from Christianity by hypocrisy. You cannot judge Christianity by the lives of people who aren’t really Christians!That would be irrational. In the same way, I cannot judge Indian food by tasting sausages mixed with a teaspoon of curry powder prepared by someone who has no idea about Indian cooking. To assess something fairly, I must taste the real thing rather than the poor counterfeit. In the case of Christianity, it must be assessed by investigating the real thing, rather than the fake. And the real thing is found in the life and teachings of Jesus. A person wanting to fairly investigate and assess Christianity should read the accounts of the life of its founder, in the four Gospels of the New Testament; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Here you will not only find teaching that is profound and liberating but you will also encounter the most loving, compassionate, wise person who ever lived.
At this point, the seeker or sceptic might argue, “If there truly is a God, why does He let hypocrites defame His Name? Why does He let them get away with their terrible behaviour – behaviour that turns people away? Surely, if God exists, He would not let this happen. Therefore, He does not exist!” There are two answers to this question; a philosophical one and a biblical one.
The philosophical answer revolves around the complex interplay between God’s sovereignty and mankind’s free will. Why does God let anyone get away with poor behaviour? It appears that in order to have a meaningful universe, a universe where our decisions have any meaning at all, free will is absolutely essential. A universe where God constantly intervened to over-ride our free wills, to thwart or overturn our actions, would render the very laws of nature unreliable and would negate the essence of such virtues as love and faithfulness. The fact that God allows free will to run its course does not, in any way, prove His non-existence. We have already discussed the very high probability that God, in allowing all kinds of difficult circumstances to unfold in our world, has inscrutable higher purposes at play, purposes that we, mere humans, cannot possibly conceive or understand with our limited perspectives. The same factors that cause God to allow irreligious people to act badly and temporarily seem to get away with it,also allow self-professed religious people to act badly.
The second answer – the biblical answer – to the question of why God doesn’t intervene to stop so-called Christians behaving badly, centres around a parable that Jesus once told. It is worth quoting in full:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot some wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” (Matthew 13:24-30)
This is an important parable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it corroborates the fact that not everyone who claims to be a Christian is, in fact, a Christian. In God’s “field” (the church on earth) there are “weeds” (people who are not truly Christians) mixed in with the “wheat” (those who are genuinely following Christ). Secondly, the parable states unequivocally that these “weeds” will one day suffer the fire of God’s wrath. In other words, those who claim to be part of God’s kingdom but who are not, will one day be on the receiving end of God’s extreme displeasure. Finally, it portrays God as withholding His judgment on these “weeds” for the present time. His reason for so doing is, no doubt, the same as His reason for withholding judgment on all people, that He might give them ample time to repent in order that some may still be saved; “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
The detestable crimes that are sometimes perpetrated by people who claim to be followers of Christ are abhorrent to God and to any true Christian. The vile actions that we see portrayed in the media all too regularly, directly contradict the teachings of Christ and do not reflect true Christianity. Similarly, the perpetrators cannot, under any definition of the term, be said to be Christians, for to be a follower of Christ is to obey Him.
Having said that, an important qualification must be added; all Christians sin. We do not always follow Christ perfectly. We remain fallible until our dying day, regularly requiring Christ’s forgiveness. A Christian is not someone who has arrived at a state of perfect obedience. For this reason, Christians can, occasionally, let you down. It is possible for a Christian, in a moment of weakness, to behave poorly, and, in that moment, fail to exemplify the values and morals of Christ’s teachings. Using the metaphor of Jesus’ parable, as well as God’s field (the church) being infested with “weeds” (people who are not genuine Christians), some of the wheat plants (genuine Christians) can occasionally, momentarily, manifest ‘weed-like’ behaviour. In the case of Christians who are very new to the faith, these slip-ups may be frequent and obvious. The difference between the weeds and the wheat, however, is that the true followers of Christ are earnestly seeking to follow and obey Him, despite occasionally slipping up, whereas the “weeds” are deliberately, wilfully and habitually living in disobedience to Christ’s commands, while outwardly maintaining a religious façade that may be quite convincing. This is why it is extremely difficult to determine who are truly Christ’s followers and who are not; to distinguish between the wheat and the weeds. It is also why, in the parable, when the servants offer to pull up all the weeds, the owner of the field tells them not to, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot some wheat with them” (Matt 13:29). Ultimately, only God knows who the true followers of Christ are, and He will weed out those who are not His followers at “the harvest” at the end of time (Matt 13:30).
In the meantime, I need to reiterate, in the strongest possible terms, that the poor behaviour of people who profess to be Christians neither disproves God’s existence, nor devalues His character. God is a perfect God, worshipped by imperfect creatures. He is in the business of transforming lives, of turning sinners into saints, and this is often a slow and messy process. The seeker who is trying to understand the Christian faith and believe in the God of the Bible, should not be preoccupied with the stumbling steps of Christ’s followers or the hypocritical actions of false believers, but, rather, should focus on Christ Himself, who lived a perfect life and whose teaching is truly transformative.
(The rest of chapter 11 of Finding God When He Seems to be Hiding deals with false or exaggerated claims of historical Christian atrocities; the Inquisitions, the Crusades, the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, and finally, the complex issue of God-ordained killing in the Old Testament.
Finding God When He Seems to be Hiding can be purchased internationally from all major book retailers, as either a paperback or eBook.)
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He spent 31 years in Christian ministry as a church pastor and a Christian educator. He is the author of Finding God When He Seems to be Hiding; No More Monkey Business: Evolution in Crisis; and Making Sense of the Bible. He has also written a best-selling series of science fiction books.