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What Exactly is a Hypocrite?

Lake Superior State University recently released its 31st annual List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness. Over the past few years, these words and phrases have included hunker down, person of interest, junk science, chad, metrosexual, first-time caller, and dawg.

I would like to nominate a word I think is both over-used and misused—the word hypocrite. I hear this word constantly on National Public Radio, on talk radio, and on national news programs such as Dateline, 20/20, and 60 Minutes. It is usually used by politicians in reference to other politicians, but it also appears in the mouths of reporters and commentators in reference to a whole host of Americans.

What exactly does the word hypocrite mean? Basically, it is a transliteration of the Greek word that originally meant "a play-actor" and, more specifically, "one who wears a mask"—-as all ancient Greek actors did. In its original positive sense, a hypocrite was an entertainer who acted in a play. In a more neutral sense, a hypocrite is someone pretending, like all actors, to be someone else.

As far as I can tell, Jesus was the first person to popularize the use of this word in a negative, metaphorical sense. He labeled various religious leaders of his day, mostly scribes and Pharisees, as hypocrites. What kind of person was he describing? Here are five possibilities:

1. A self-deluded person—someone who is incapable of perceiving the enormous gap between the teaching of scripture and his own behavior;

2. A disingenuous person—one who pretends to be sincere and straightforward, yet who is in reality cunning, crafty, and ultimately insincere;

3. A show-off—one who pretends to be more important than he really is, someone who loves the limelight and needs to feel important;

4. An imposter or dissembler—one who pretends to be what he is not in order to derive some personal gain (social, political, or financial) or simply the thrill of deceiving others and thereby controlling them;

5. An inconsistent person—someone who is unable, for whatever reason, to both "talk the talk and walk the walk," a person whose actions sometimes belie his words.

The word most often appears In the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus uses it primarily in the second and fourth senses. Religious hypocrites are those who practice their faith not to glorify God but simply to be seen by other people, thereby winning their approval and admiration. Winning approval is not all they seek, however. They often pretend to be righteous in order to conceal or to justify their own unrighteous deeds. Sometimes their unrighteous deeds are done out of pride or the desire for power over others; sometimes they are done simply for personal material gain. Hypocrites are those who hear the word of God but who do not do it. They may even preach the word of God, but they do not practice it (see Matthew 6:1-16; 7:1-5; 15:1-9; 22:15-19; 23:1-33). In Jesus' opinion, hypocrites are going to hell (Matthew 23:33; 24:51).

These days, however, most people casually use the word in the fifth sense to denote anyone whose behavior is inconsistent with some remark he has made or some position he is alleged to hold. This usage does not suggest insincerity or deceit as much as it does either a lack of logic or the inability to live up to one's professed ideals. Writers of the New Testament occasionally use the word this way as well (see Luke 13:15 where the synagogue leaders are willing to help an animal on the Sabbath, but, inconsistently, will not grant Jesus permission to heal a human being. Peter's inconsistent treatment of Gentile Christians in Antioch is also called hypocritical behavior by Paul in Galatians 2:13).

I think calling people hypocrites in this sense is often tantamount to calling them human. Everyone of us is a hypocrite by the standard of perfect consistency. Virtually everyone makes New Year's resolutions he doesn't keep. Everyone makes little compromises he would prefer not to make. Everyone changes his mind at times and decides to reject as false or inadequate what he previously might have thought or said.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay "Self Reliance," went so far as to say that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Inconsistency at times may be simple honesty—a recognition that the general rule does not always apply. It may also be a sign of intellectual honesty, humility, and maturity.

We are not hypocrites every time we are inconsistent. We are hypocrites in the truest sense of the word when we are deliberately devious and manipulative, when we say what we actually do not believe in order to impress, deceive, or exploit others. To use this word of strong accusation correctly ought to require a clear proof of the culprit's intent.

I believe we could improve civil discourse if we all stop calling people hypocrites unless we have indisputable evidence of their imposture. Yes, there are real hypocrites in the world, but we destroy the power and usefulness of the word by using it--all too frequently--to denote mere inconsistency.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 9, 2006 1:25 PM.

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