For now: Toleration
There are hypocrites in the church, and we must decide what to do about them.
Admittedly, everyone in the church is “a sinner saved by grace.” We need to be in church because church is a hospital for sinners; we need the healing ministry of such a hospital.
But the issue with hypocrisy goes further. Hypocrisy is a poison to Christian fellowship. It is a cancer to Christian witness. It brings dishonor to the name of Christ.
We have two options: We can make it our task to get rid of all hypocrites from the church, or we can tolerate them for now.
In addressing these options, Jesus told a parable about a farmer who sowed good seed into his field, but in the night an enemy came and sowed bearded darnel (otherwise referred to a bastard wheat). In the early stages of development the bastard wheat looks so much like the real thing that it is impossible to tell them apart. By the time they can be distinguished the roots of one have become so entwined with the other that to pull out the bearded darnel would also tear out the good wheat. But the bearded darnel cannot be ignored and left among the wheat after harvest, for the bearded darnel is slightly poisonous, with a bitter and unpleasant taste, causing dizziness and sickness.
The farmer has two options: Make a pure field by tearing out the bastard wheat, though doing so will destroy much of the good wheat, or tolerate the bearded darnel amidst the good wheat for now, waiting until harvest to separate them.
Jesus expresses his recommendation clearly: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matthew 13:30).
The history of the Christian church reveals a tendency to try to come up with a pure church by pulling up all whom we think might be impure. Thus we are left with many thousands of denominations around the world, many more fragmented and damaged local churches, and many more individuals who have been ripped away from church and disillusioned with faith. Our compulsion to make pure churches brings about great destruction.
Many years ago (in May of 1987), National Geographic included a feature about the arctic wolf. Author L. David Mech described how a seven-member pack had targeted several musk-oxen calves who were guarded by eleven adults. As the wolves approached their quarry, the musk-oxen bunched in an impenetrable semicircle, their deadly rear hooves facing out, with the calves shelter safely in the center. But a single ox broke rank, and the herd scattered into nervous little groups. A skirmish ensued, and the adults eventually fled in panic, leaving the calves to the clutches of the wolves. Not a single calf survived.
When the church divides, the most vulnerable are ravaged by the evil one.
There will come a time when it will be essential for hypocrites to be separated from God’s true children—but now is not the time. If we try to do it now, we cause too much damage. For now, we need to learn how to tolerate one another and trust God to sort out, at the right time, whatever needs to be sorted out.
For now, we need to recognize that we need one another more than we need stainless purity in the church. Rachel Held Evans summarizes her book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church with this discovery: “I’m not exactly sure how all this works, but I think, ultimately, it means I can’t be a Christian on my own. Like it or not, following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together. We might not always do it within the walls of church or even in an organized religion, but if we are to go about making disciples, confessing our sins, breaking bread, paying attention, and preaching the Word, we’re going to need one another. We’re going to need each other’s help” (p. 255).