Theatrical Christianity

by Earle Craig
Grace Fellowship Church
Costa Mesa, California

Hypocrisy Defined

A woman once asked me, "What do they call you at your church?" I told her, "Earle." But," she replied, "shouldn't they show you more respect as a minister?" I answered, "Respect? In our church? Are you kidding?" She didn't quite catch the joke, but I explained to her that someone's using a title to address me does not really give me respect. Rather it is the condition of their heart that is the issue. In Luke 12, Jesus clearly warns his disciples about the tendency to believe that our outward behavior alone determines the quality of our righteousness and the authenticity of our Christianity. He points out to them a subtle yet important difference between authentic Christianity and Theatrical Christianity . Luke 12:1 reads:
Under these circumstances, after so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they were stepping on one another, he began saying to his disciples first of all, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."

For us the word hypocrisy typically has one of two meanings. We think of someone who "does not practice what they preach," and we call him a hypocrite. We describe him as inconsistent. He is saying one thing and doing another. Or we think of someone who practices what he preaches, but is not sincere. He certainly does what he says, but he really doesn't believe in it even though perhaps he tries to convince us otherwise.

In Luke 12, Jesus is actually referring to a third meaning. The Greek word hypocrisis comes out of the Greek theater. It was used to denote an actor on stage, one who wore a mask and portrayed a character. This is the meaning Jesus intends. He is not talking about inconsistent or insincere hypocrisy but theatrical hypocrisy. In theatrical hypocrisy someone practices consistently and sincerely exactly what they preach as though they were acting out a part in a play. So part of their purpose is to convince the audience that they really are the character whom they are portraying. In Jesus' day the Pharisees were experts at living life this way. They sincerely and consistently sought to please God through their righteousness. We often think that the Pharisees were the quintessential bad guys because they disobeyed God. However, we should realize that the Pharisees were perhaps some of the most sincere and consistent people to seek to obey God. The apostle Paul wrote that they had "a zeal for God" (Romans 10:2). But by warning his disciples about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus is teaching them that there was something profoundly wrong about the Pharisees' approach to obedience - that in spite of their sincerity and consistency, they considered righteousness a script that they merely had to act out. Similarly his warning applies to theatrical Christians who act out a sort of religious script and convince themselves that they are truly authentic in their Christianity when they really are not.

The Analogy of the Theater

An easy way to understand this false Christianity is to use the analogy of a theater. For our purposes let's consider four important elements of the theater environment. First there are the actors. The actors are on stage, pretending to be people they really aren't, and working hard to convince the audience otherwise. If they succeed, they are considered good actors. The actors can make or break a play. But everyone knows that you do not go to a theater to observe real life. You go to observe actors on a stage performing an imitation of real life. But good actors certainly make it hard to tell the difference. That is their job. No wonder we are surprised if we meet a Hollywood star that they seem like a completely different person from how they behave on television or in movies. Good actors are convincing!

Another important element of the theater is the script. The script is the series of words and events that the actors perform. But everyone knows that the script has been planned, and everyone has agreed to stick to the plan. The whole play is prearranged and mutually agreed upon. There is no dissension. All the actors want an orderly play. Words or events outside the script will only inject chaos into the play. They are not expected, and no one wants that. So one of the goals of the script is to keep control of the events in the play. Even the audience, who may be familiar with the script, is expecting the story to proceed in an orderly fashion. Any interruption will make them uncomfortable and probably angry. However, they won't mind chaos if it is written into the script because they know that it is under the control of the actors. So controlled chaos is acceptable since the audience knows that the actors have the resources and the capabilities to keep the chaos under control. Otherwise, the event, chaotic or not, would not have been written into the play. The script, therefore, is very important to making the play successful.

A third important element of the theater is the audience. The audience comes to see a play, and their goal is to be entertained. They want to enjoy themselves And they are willing to give something very important and significant to the actors in exchange for being entertained - applause. Apart from money. the actors want applause more than anything else. They want confirmation that their acting is good, and that the play is good. This motivates them to keep on acting. Therefore, the audience and its applause are very important for a successful play.

The audience even wants to applaud They want to become thoroughly wrapped up in the story and made to laugh, cry, fear, or desire justice. Living vicariously through the play feels good to the audience, and they count on good acting and a good script to do this for them.

The fourth important element of the theater is the building . It actually performs a very important function. It keeps the outside out and the play inside in so that the actors and the audience do not have to in contact with the outside while the play is going on. Why is this important? Because the outside world is typically uglier than the ambiance inside the theater. The script calls for props that decorate the stage and make it look attractive and "real." The audience is usually well-dressed, polite, and attentive. The whole setting is usually very comfortable and enjoyable. It is intended to be.

Recently I went to see The Phantom of the Opera at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. It was a wonderful performance in a beautiful building. It felt good inside the theater to be entertained by such a magnificent show. Outside, though, was still Los Angeles - an asphalt jungle with its bums, derelicts, and gangs on the streets. It is hard not to call it ugly, scary, and uncomfortable. The theater building, however, performed its function very well. It insulated me from this tragic scene with such a fine performance by the actors of an extraordinary script. As one of the audience, I applauded wholeheartedly such an enjoyable experience.

Theatrical Christianity

In Luke l2, Jesus is warning us to beware of hypocrisy - of Theatrical Christianity, just as the Pharisees were guilty of Theatrical Judaism. So, in our case, who are the actors and the audience, and what are the script and the building? The actors are professing Christians. They claim to be Christians and are church members. They are not doing anything unusual except to go along with the flow of the local church and the Christian community. But there is something wrong about them, and this is why they are hypocrites.

They are merely acting out a script, which all their fellow professing Christians are performing. Its a lifestyle of carefully orchestrated words and actions to which everyone has agreed. And there is no dissent among them because they all want both control and comfort. The goal is to keep life under control and orderly. Thus Christians can also experience as comfortable an existence as possible. Out of control suffering, pain, and chaos is just too discomforting.

Therefore the script must be manageable. Christian should at all times be capable of following the script. Then they can keep their lives orderly, comfortable, and enjoyable. The script must also be achievable. The only play worth acting is a successful one. So people should be able to succeed at following the script. This boosts their self-esteem. Of course, if someone is failing at following the script, it must be their problem and not the fact that the script is a misrepresentation of authentic Christianity. Nevertheless, the script should also be challenging. Everyone needs to feel as though they have accomplished something significant. Thus they can truly merit their own applause and that of the audience. The feeling of success is very important. And finally the script must be enjoyable. Everyone usually succeeds at something they really want to do. And after all, Christianity that isn't fun isn't worth living.

The audience in Theatrical Christianity is everyone who is watching and applauding while I am acting. They may be joining me on stage or simply watching and living vicariously through me in the audience. It depends upon the specific situation. At any rate, everyone in Theatrical Christianity ends up being both actor and audience. Sometimes we act. Sometimes we applaud. Its just that some actors get more press.

Finally, it's important to realize that the "building" of Theatrical Christianity is not an actual building. Instead it is the whole play itself. Remember we saw that the purpose of the building is to insulate the play from the ugly outside world. What was the Pharisees' ugly outside world from which their hypocrisy was intended to protect them? Jesus tells us very clearly in Matthew 23 that it was the much avoided sin inside their hearts.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence...For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness! Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

So the "outside" is actually the ugliness and chaos of sin inside us - in our hearts and minds. We continue to sin against God and we want to hide from its painful and uncomfortable consequences. This is the "real" world that the script is written to avoid. The sin in our hearts is scary and ugly. It is uncomfortable and chaotic. Emotionally the consequences are feelings of hurt, pain, and anger. Physically they are such things as poverty and disease. Relationally the consequences are conflict, tension, divorce, and war. Psychologically they are such things as fear, anxiety, and depression. Maybe our upbringing and environment have contributed heavily to our problems. Nevertheless the scriptures clearly teach us that the real ugliness is not outside of us, but inside us, in our hearts, where sin continues to demonstrate its effects even in Christians.

Therefore we design our Theatrical Christianity to protect us from this ugly real world. Apart from the work of God's grace in our lives, we simply do not want to have to deal with the sin within. Therefore we write a script that is manageable, achievable, challenging, and enjoyable so we can convince ourselves and holy God that we really are living authentic Christianity while conveniently avoiding the "outside" inside our hearts.

Examples of Theatrical Christianity

The problem with identifying examples of Christian hypocrisy is that anything could be an example. If we are doing something to secretly get other Christians to like us and to avoid dealing with our sin, it is hypocrisy - even if we are talking about biblical issues. Remember that the Pharisees were diligent bible students and incredible prayer warriors. But Jesus still condemned them. So even good things can be used for hypocritical purposes. We are such insecure people that appearing weak is very threatening.

Back when I first became a Christian, I was taught that the two most important activities for the Christian were discipleship and evangelism. These are both great and commendable pursuits. However, I now recognize that by concentrating on them with such strict emphasis, we were able, in fact encouraged, to avoid dealing with the residual sin in our hearts. We were so busy trying to perform the "master plan" that no one took the time to stop and consider who God is and who we really are before him. This left a lot of us confused as well as flat out depressed about the Christian life. The more intensely we discipled and evangelized, the more confused we became about the real meaning of the Christian life. But you did not dare tell anybody because it wasn't a past of the script. Good Christians didn't have deep problems they couldn't fix quickly and easily. And it would have wrecked the successful looking play if we had talked about them.

Christian marriage is good and right. To intimately know a wife or husband and share a common faith in Jesus Christ is both gratifying and fulfilling. However, even Christian marriage can easily be used as of Theatrical Christianity. In our area of southern California, the script typically calls for the married couple to feel good about each other all the time, hold hands and stare into each other's eyes a lot, live in nice house, and drive two foreign cars each with its own car phone. While the husband earns a good income in a successful business, the wife is cute and a good decorator, and they have at least two kids who are involved in just about every sport and activity known to man so that the mother drives her kids all over kingdom come to their activities, and then somehow she finds time to exercise because the script calls for tight bodies. The whole family attends a well-respected church, and is involved there in lots of good programs. The husband and wife are especially following the script well if they both head up two of the church's programs. Again, nothing here in and of itself is immoral. But one wonders whether all the activities somehow are designed to convince everyone else that life is under control and to avoid the issues of the heart, i.e. sin - like lust, greed, jealousy, envy, worry, and lack of trust in God.

Church buildings are good and appropriate places for God's people to meet and worship our sovereign Creator and Savior. However, they too can become part of the theater of Christianity. If the building is so attractive and beautiful that it intimidates the poor, the smelly, the uncouth and unsociable so that they would never enter it, perhaps it is designed to allow us to avoid the sin of ignoring these people instead of loving and caring for them as Jesus did.

Pastors are called of God to shepherd His people. But unfortunately they especially are susceptible to promoting Theatrical Christianity. I, myself, feel the temptation to act out a particular role in our church It is easy to want to be witty, articulate, good-looking, suave and persuasive, a good story teller, and a real motivator towards "successful Christian living." It is also tempting to teach the bible as though it were merely a script that is manageable, achievable, challenging, and enjoyable by leaving out the difficult passages of God's wrath and our sin - or at least watering them down so that they will be more acceptable to delicate ears. It would seem that Christianity that isn't fun just isn't worth living so that a pastor who always looks as though he has his act together will enable his congregants to continue living their own script and avoid their own sin. It is true that pastors who succumb to immorality need to be dealt with appropriately, but one wonders whether the need for everyone to abide by the script of Theatrical Christianity is actually contributing to the proliferation of fallen pastors by preventing them from being honest about what is at least going on inside them.

So anything of an external nature that permits us to avoid the ugliness of our sin could become an example of Christian hypocrisy. Even things that are mentioned in the bible that authentic Christians do - prayer, bible study, giving, assembling with other Christians, and confession of sin. The problem is that really anybody including an atheist could do these things and appear sincere about them.

Someone must get us to deal with what is inside us as well as our external behavior.

Jesus Christ in the Audience

This is where a very important member of the audience, whom we have not mentioned yet, comes into the play. Jesus Christ is watching our play. In fact, he is sitting in the front row. And what he ends up doing is very remarkable and totally unexpected. We actually expect him to applaud the play more heartily than anybody because we are convinced our play is authentic Christianity. At the Ahmanson Theater in downtown L.A. the actors and audience know that the play isn't real life The actors expect to be applauded only for performing well an imitation of life. However, in Theatrical Christianity, the actors and audience have all agreed and thoroughly convinced themselves that the play isn't real life, and that any deep problems "outside the building" in their hearts don't exist! Everyone firmly believes that the script is the one and only true description of Christianity. Plus the play looks so good, and it feels good. So it has to be right.

Consequently, the actors and audience really expect Jesus to applaud even more than an audience at the Ahmanson. But he doesn't. In fact, he "rudely" but lovingly gets up out of his seat in the middle of the play and interrupts the whole scene by declaring in a loud and clear voice that the play is false reality, that the actors and audience are not living authentic Christianity even though they all profess to be Christians, that he is leaving the theater, and that if anyone wants to live real Christianity and have eternal life, they will have to follow him "outside" where it is ugly, scary, chaotic, and out of their control And he goes on to declare that the actors and audience may firmly believe that they are comfortable and enjoying life, but if they follow him "outside" they will find and experience more comfort and more joy in spite of the ugliness. It is there they will taste the true righteousness of compassion, mercy, patience, justice, and faithfulness graced to them by God. But they will have to trust him and not the play because outside the theater is the cross, the suffering of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sin.

Theatrical Christianity avoids sin. The suffering and resurrected Christ faces us squarely into it so that with humble honesty we might obtain eternal life by repenting of our sin on a continual basis and receiving God's forgiveness. Our hearts look scary to us because their sin is out of our control. Anyone who has truly come face to face with his sin can tell you of its chaos. Our sin is so deep and pervasive that we cannot get to it to control it. Whenever we try, our self-effort proves futile. Only God's grace can transform us on the inside and it is for this we trust him. Inside Theatrical Christianity, we give off the appearance of being under control, but the achievable of our script only permits us to trust ourselves and not God. But as soon as we follow Jesus outside our theater, we can honestly and openly deal with the burns, derelicts, and gangs on the streets of our hearts, and trust him to both forgive us and change us from the inside out, making us people who pursue authentic righteousness now and who will become perfectly righteous in heaven.

God's Grace Towards His People

We all naturally gravitate towards hypocrisy because of the depth of our sin. No one really wants to completely face into their sin and its consequences. In addition, no one naturally wants to trust God. But God will not permit his people to continue acting within the theater of hypocritical Christianity. He will motivate us by his grace to get up out of our seats or off the stage and follow Jesus Christ "outside." He opens our eyes to see the falsehood of the play. And then he lovingly pushes us into the ugliness of our sin so that we feel very uncomfortable about it. But this is all designed to brings us to the point where we have no other choice but to trust Jesus Christ to save us from the chaos in our hearts. God has to show us how out of control our script really was. We were relying on a false security.

Even though Theatrical Christianity looks good on the outside, it drives people into burnout and disillusionment if they are not strong enough in their flesh to continue to pull it off. But this burn out can be the best thing that ever happened to them. God will use it to drive his people to their knees and to greater faith. He lets them get genuinely tired of the false pretense and performing for one another, and then motivates them to get up out of their seats and follow Jesus "outside" to the cross that will save us from the sin in our hearts. And we need not be frightened even though our sin is so ugly and can be very painful. God loves his people enough to shake us loose from our hypocrisy, expose the truth of our sin to us, and lead us to himself for forgiveness, comfort, and the promise of eternal salvation. And his love is always unbounded and constant so that if we try to slip back inside the theater, he will lead us back out again to continue to trust Jesus.

So if you are a Christian, and your life is unsettled and chaotic when perhaps at one time you appeared under control and orderly, you were probably simply avoiding the inevitable. You are discovering that ironically the church is one of the easiest places to hide from our ugly sinful issues because there the script can make us look so good and feel so comfortable. But God loves us too much to leave us in the theater where we have been faking Christianity. He will push us outside to the cross where there is true joy and security in Jesus Christ alone. We so easily trust ourselves, but God will have us trust only him as we face into the pain of sin and its consequent difficulties like depression, loneliness, financial strain, disease, and conflict.

We are sinful even as Christians, and the pain we encounter is part of living in a sinful world. God will draw us into one of these kinds of difficulties to jar us loose from our hypocrisy and into trusting him. Fortunately in the process he does change us. If anything we become more desirous and committed to heaven and eternal life as our ultimate hope and expectation. Our tendency towards hypocrisy runs deep within us, but God is committed to leading us to trust in him and away from trusting in ourselves. Thus he continues to love and shepherd his people.

False Christians' Response to Jesus

The people who remain in the theater will react differently to Jesus Christ. Remember they firmly believe they are right and that they are living authentic Christianity. Plus the entertainment for the audience and the applause for the actors feels so good. Its addictive and virtually hypnotic. They are comfortable, besides, and free from most pain for all practical purposes. They are together and feel the communal support of one another which also feels good and secure. Their lives are orderly, and they are firmly convinced that they are deriving real satisfaction from their lives and that they are pleasing to God. They believe that they are engaged in genuine and sincere biblical righteousness. This is exactly how the Pharisees were.

But Jesus Christ, an ex-carpenter, poor and unemployed, stands up and declares that they are wrong deluded, insecure, chaotic, and evil. Like the Pharisees, false Christians will reject him and continue to embrace Theatrical Christianity. They will even want to get rid of him because he is always criticizing them and their play.

They also may start out trying to gently persuade God's people to stay within Theatrical Christianity. But the more it becomes clear that authentic Christianity are truly willing to deal with the sin in their hearts and therefore do not need to live according to a carefully crafted script, the sooner false Christians will eventually say, "Good riddance. You must not be a Christian anyway," because they firmly believe that Christianity is always orderly, controlled, and successful looking. Orderliness is good, but to have it 100% of the time is simply unrealistic.

The Response of God's People to Jesus

On the other hand, God's people will respond to Jesus Christ and his invitation to trust him and face into the realities of life with repentance, love, and worship. As Martin Luther wrote as one of his 95 theses, "When our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says, 'Repent,' he means that the entire life of the faithful should be a repentance." Then out of this faithful repentance flows our activity of love for God and one another and our worship of God.

So then what is the fundamental difference between authentic Christianity and Theatrical Christianity? The difference is merely the object of our trust. Are we trusting our acting ability to live the Christian life and to become acceptable to God and one another, or are we trusting in Jesus Christ's crucifixion alone to be acceptable before God and in the grace of God alone to transform us from the inside out in His timing so that there truly may be periods in our lives where we are simply going to look very successful or be very attractive to others, but they are called to forgive us just as we are called to forgive them, and our common trust in God holds us together?

The Pharisees in their hypocrisy completely avoided the sin within them and trusted in their good looking religion to make them acceptable to God. We, like the disciples, need to beware this leaven, lace into the sin in our hearts, and trust in Jesus Christ alone to forgive us and transform us from the inside out, making us acceptable to God through the work of his cross and not through our acting ability.

September 1, 1992
Copyright 1992 by Earle Craig.