Is the Church really filled with hypocrites? No.

But the apostle Paul noticed a few…

Even in Christianity-soaked northern Indiana where I grew up several decades ago, there were cynics: those who gave wide berth to the church because, as they put it, “They’re just a bunch of hypocrites. Those people show up on Sunday, then forget about their religion the rest of the week.” Having been a pastor of two churches myself, I’ll side with the Christians on this one. I don’t think the blanket charge of hypocrisy is fair. But yes, there are those folks who preach one thing but do another.

It seems to been an ancient problem as well. The apostle Paul spotted the hypocrites and comes down hard on them at the start of chapter two of his Letter to the Romans. The second chapter is the topic of this post—as we make our way through all 16 chapters of Romans—one post at a time.

“Why bother?” you may ask. Well, this epistle has been idealized and idolized forever by Christian scholars, who obsess about its potential for revealing the mind of the Almighty. Just scratch the surface—in fact they go far deeper than the surface—and the word of God is sure to come seeping out. But Paul was a mediocre thinker and a bad theologian; couldn’t God have done better? There is so much bad stuff in the Bible, and it doesn’t hurt to keep pointing out that some of the most treasured Christian texts deserved to be sliced out. Thomas Jefferson took his scissors to the gospels to cut out the nonsense; I’m sure he would not have been kind to Romans.

Paul goes on this rant against hypocrites although he had never visited the congregation in Rome. Near the end of the letter, in chapter 16, he says “hi” to quite a few people whom he knows there, so maybe he had reports of unsavory conduct. In 1:11 he had written, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” Hence his strong words against hypocrisy; maybe he’s giving advance warning?

We can give him credit for impatience with hypocrisy, but then nasty Paul resumes the rant. God will run out of patience: “…for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil” (vv.8-9). Wrath, fury, anguish, distress. Paul’s message here reminds us of John the Baptist’s severe words for the religious leaders who came out to hear him preach: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? …even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10) Yes, there are Hallmark moments in Paul’s letters, but there is uncompressing severity as well. Don’t get carried away bragging about a ‘god of love’ in the New Testament.

Can It Be? A Hint at Secular Ethics?

Again, to his credit, Paul saw that being in God’s favor didn’t depend on being Jewish, i.e., in the company of those who had heard God’s law for centuries. “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13). No matter who you are, you can qualify, and I find vv. 14-15 startling; did Paul really realize what he was saying: “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” Do instinctively…written on their hearts…their own conscience bears witness? Atheists who argue that we don’t need religion to behave morally embrace these very concepts.

But Paul is caught in a major contradiction here, because he really doesn’t mean what he says in verse 10, i.e., that glory, honor and peace are for everyone who does good. The heart of Pauline theology, so earnestly embraced by Luther, was justification by faith, as stated so bluntly by Paul in Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” No amount of ‘doing good’ will do the trick. British scholar Michael Grant: “Paul commits flagrant self-contradictions, which caused Augustine, among many others, the deepest anxiety.” (St. Paul, 1982, p. 6)

The Invasion-of-Privacy God

No surprise: personal monotheism is stated here with a vengeance. Paul is confident that, on the Day of Judgment, “…God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” (v. 16) God will judge your thoughts! The theologians who came up with this idea discovered the formula for terrorizing people. Jesus was in the same camp (at least as depicted by those who created the fictional Galilean peasant); he claimed that the hairs of our head are numbered—and the deity knows as well the thought-crimes inside our skulls: lust is the equivalent of adultery.

I once had a parishioner who was worried that people were watching her through the TV. Crazy, yes, but just drop the TV, and that’s what personal monotheism is: God is always watching you. Who thinks it’s cool to have cameras—installed by the state, our boss, landlord or a god—spying on us in our bedrooms and bathrooms—indeed, everywhere? And with the capacity for getting inside our heads. This evil theology should be off-putting to decent people. As for the folks who have lost their faith and mourn its passing, Christopher Hitchens asked why—why would you want it back? Personal monotheism is totalitarianism: you can’t even have ‘secret thoughts’ without God knowing. Heaven, Hitchens said, is a celestial North Korea. He couldn’t imagine anyone yearning for it.

Paul and Jesus should rub people the wrong way because they claimed to be on a first name basis with the Invasion-of-Privacy god. Beware all who position themselves this way—and posture accordingly. They rate themselves as supremely qualified to tell the rest of us what to do. As we go through the Letter to the Romans we will see that Paul specializes in just that.

A Positive Note at the End

Paul had little patience with the notion of Chosen People. So being circumcised was irrelevant; this outward mark on the flesh counted for nothing: “Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (v.29).

A nice sentiment indeed—now if only Paul’s theology had not been excessively infused with magical thinking, i.e., the notion that believing that a holy man had risen from the dead was the key to winning eternal life.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.