ou would never know by watching the evening news that the sin of hypocrisy is actually on the decline in our society. The much-publicized failings of prominent social conservatives such as U.S. Representative Mark Foley (sending lewd e-mails to congressional pages), U.S. Senator David Vitter (using a Washington, D.C., “escort service”), and U.S. Senator Larry Craig (accused of soliciting homosexual sex in a Minneapolis airport restroom) have persuaded many that most public officials and leaders are, in fact, hypocrites—insincere, dishonest persons, feigning commitment to values they don’t actually hold. It is probably no coincidence that approval ratings for the U.S. Congress are also approaching historic lows.
I’ve been intrigued but not surprised by the corresponding drop-off in public advocacy for what are sometimes called “family values” during this sorry extended news cycle. Support for traditional marriage, opposition to same-sex unions or “gay” marriage, calls for decency provisions in regulating media portrayals of sex and violence—all have been muted as leaders everywhere cower in fear of being labeled “hypocrites.” They know by experience what believers know from both experience and Scripture: men and women are weak, sinful creatures who frequently fall short of both the glory of God and the God-given dignity of human beings. There are closets in all houses and dark corners in almost every life.
Cynics may rejoice that we will have less hypocrisy in public life, that we will no longer be treated to the contrasts between a Tide-clean image and the reality of dirty laundry. As persons of faith and leaders in general absorb the prevailing wisdom that clear, forthright statements about moral issues are to be avoided, we should all look forward to a future that is more “honest” but considerably less clear. Opacity, fence-straddling, and ambiguity will be highly prized commodities. Gray will be the shade that everyone is wearing.
But some definitions are in order, even at this late date. Bad judgment, human frailty, and foolishness are not the same sins as hypocrisy, even as we long for the day when we will rise above them. Weaknesses inhabit every human life, including those of leaders. Hypocrisy is deemed especially heinous in our society just because it is a misguided and public attempt to assert an untruth—that certain persons are beyond the reach of certain sins. Leaders everywhere do well to recall the words of Scripture: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9, KJV).
What we cannot countenance either now or for the future is the silencing of moral concern, in the broader society or in the unique society we call the church. This is no moment for leaders in either sphere to be intimidated by their knowledge of their own frailties or the fear that critics and cynics can almost always find some dirt to be exploited. We should all rightly dread the day when policies are crafted to quiet critics, or positions taken only to ward off the darts of bloggers.
Give me leaders who still have the courage to call sin by its right name, even as they grieve for their own mistakes. I’ll follow a fallible but forgiven leader to the edge of doom—or the gate of heaven—and I’m not alone in that. Confidence in leadership is built when those we choose to follow articulate our deepest moral and spiritual values in clear, uncompromising language, even as they ask for our prayers and acknowledge their own frailties.
In many places, just now, God is stirring many hearts with visions of His holiness and a sense of just how urgent are the times in which we live. The Spirit is kindling fires across this movement among consecrated, searching leaders who remind themselves of the truth Jonathan once spoke: “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6, RSV).*
Pray this day that the leaders you follow will have the courage to speak the truth as it is in Jesus—without fear, without change, without equivocation.
*Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.