There is a twist—a deeper reason why the perception of hypocrisy exists. It’s not just our lifestyles that have gotten us in trouble; it’s the very way in which we convey the priorities of being a Christian. The most common message people hear from us is that Christianity is a religion of rules and regulations. They think of us as hypocritical because they are measuring us by our own standards.
In our research, we asked Christian adults to identify the priorities Christians pursue in terms of their personal faith. We did not prompt any answers; respondents were able to mention anything that came to mind.
What do you imagine was the most common response?
It was lifestyle—being good, doing the right thing, not sinning.
Christians describe their main faith priority in these terms. Indeed, Christ calls us to be different people, reflected in our lifestyle, so the fact that people are mentioning this is not inherently wrong. Scripture makes it clear that we are to prioritize the “fruit” or outcomes of people’s lives as a measure of their faith (John 15:1–8). The writer James points out that without some way of measuring the reality of our faith (our deeds), faith is nothing more than a series of empty beliefs (James 2:20–26). Remember that spiritual transformation means becoming more like Christ, which includes both living in a holy manner and having the humility to admit we’re not innately good or holy.
Nevertheless, given the pervasive perception that Christians are hypocritical, it is telling that “being good” is the primary way we define what being a Christian is all about. It is also sobering to see how other important passions of a Christ follower are way down the list. The “lifestyle” priority was more frequently mentioned than discipleship—learning about the Bible and about Christ. It was more often included in the definition of being a Christian than were evangelism, worship, or relationships. Serving others and the poor was identified as a main concern by just one-fifth of believers. Thoughts of stewardship or nurturing family faith were almost nonexistent as faith priorities.
The research also pointed out that “lifestyle” indicators are more significant to born-again Christians over age forty (41 percent) than they are to younger believers (23 percent). Because this is a new question that we have not asked in our surveys before, we do not know if Christians become more focused on purity as they get older, or whether it is a true generational difference (that is, Boomers have always been more focused on lifestyle). But it does suggest that younger Christians face a generation of older believers who put a high priority on avoiding sin as a measurement of faith.
The fact that lifestyle is the most common priority of Christians suggests a related difficulty: the temptation to give a false pretense of holiness. When avoiding sin is the main concern and is not balanced by other important priorities of faith, it sets up the conditions in which we project a got-it-together image. We want to make ourselves look as though we have tamed our struggle with sin. First John 1:8 says, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.”
The evidence that born-again Christians prioritize “avoiding sin” is compelling. First, realize that most Americans believe you can earn a place in heaven if you do enough good things for others or if you are a decent person. One-third of the people who qualify as born-again Christians embrace this idea as well. That is, even among people who believe they are personally being saved by faith in Jesus, they think of salvation as a multiple-choice test, with many reasonable possibilities: while they believe their own spiritual destiny is secure through faith in Christ, they also believe that others could be saved through being a good person or because of God’s benevolence.
Second, we can also look at the views of churchgoers for evidence. In a study we conducted for Freedom in Christ Ministries, we explored the perspectives of those who attend church in a typical month. More than four out of every five agreed that the Christian life is well described as “trying hard to do what God commands.” Two-thirds of churchgoers said, “Rigid rules and strict standards are an important part of the life and teaching of my church.” Three out of every five churchgoers in America feel that they “do not measure up to God’s standards.” And one-quarter admitted that they serve God out of a sense of “guilt and obligation rather than joy and gratitude.” These are the actual phrases we used in our surveys, which makes it quite startling to see how much these terms resonate with church attenders.
Our passion for Jesus should result in God-honoring, moral lifestyles, not the other way around.