When Christians Get It Wrong

When Christians Get It Wrong

by Hamilton Adam
More and more young adults have opted out of Christianity and the church. The reason? Christians.

When young adults talk about the problems they have with Christianity and the church, they often name certain attitudes and behaviors they believe are practiced too often by Christians: judging others, condemning people of other faiths, rejecting science, injecting


More and more young adults have opted out of Christianity and the church. The reason? Christians.

When young adults talk about the problems they have with Christianity and the church, they often name certain attitudes and behaviors they believe are practiced too often by Christians: judging others, condemning people of other faiths, rejecting science, injecting politics into faith, and being anti-homosexual. With his familiar style, Adam Hamilton tackles these issues and addresses the how's and why's of Christians getting it right when it comes to being Christ in the world.

When Christians Get It Wrong Participant Book may be used with campus ministries, small groups, and Sunday school classes. The six-session Participant Book features additional stories, reflection questions and Scripture insights to help groups read and study together.

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Abingdon Press
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When Christians Get It Wrong Participant Book for Small Group Study

By Adam Hamilton

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4267-1219-7

Chapter One


Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." (Luke 15:1-2)

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to interview David Kinnaman, co-author with Gabe Lyons of the 2007 book unChristian. When I asked him to summarize the findings presented in the book, this is what he said:

Young people are more secular than ever before.... About one in five ... are either atheist or agnostic or [have] no faith. That compares to about one in every twenty people ... over the age of 60. Essentially, people believe Christianity is no longer like Jesus intended. That's why they say it is unchristian. They believe essentially that we're hypocritical ... judgmental ... sheltered ... too political ... anti-homosexual ... too focused on getting converts—that we're proselytizers. This negative set of perceptions overwhelms any favorable ideas about seeing us doing good deeds [in] the world. They see this overwhelmingly negative picture of the church, and they reject Jesus and the church because they don't want to be associated with that kind of people.

If these words accurately describe how young adults have experienced Christians, is it any surprise that they are turning away from the Christian faith in droves?

When I've asked non-Christians what they think Jesus stood for, most say, "Love." And they are correct—this is one of the defining elements of Jesus' teaching. He told his followers that God's will for humanity could be summarized with two commands: love God and love your neighbor. He went on to say that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. The love we are to show is not a feeling but a way of acting—kindness and compassion and a desire to bless and seek good for others. He told his disciples they were to love not only their neighbors and friends, but their enemies as well. He told them that the world would know that they are his disciples by their love. Most non-Christians know that Jesus stood for love, which is why it feels particularly off-putting when those who claim to follow Jesus act in unloving ways.

This disparity between the love Christians are meant to display and what young adults often experience is most pronounced when Christians speak with judgment or in disparaging ways toward others.

One young man described his experience when he was invited to attend a special youth group event at a big church in his town. He noted the kids rarely spoke to him at school until it was "bring a friend day" at youth group. They invited him to join their group at the local waterpark.

Here's his description of how the day went:

It didn't start off badly; the rides at the park were fun, and I even enjoyed hanging out with some of them. But during the long ride back to the church, they started talking about people. They discussed who was having sex, who was smoking weed, who was gay. The more they talked, the worse things they said. Many of the people they were talking about were my friends, and they knew it! To make things worse, some of the ones talking loudest were doing the very things they were gossiping about. Finally, they got on to the subject of who was going to hell. It seems that if you didn't go to their brand of church, you didn't stand a chance of getting into heaven. That, of course, meant me, and it didn't seem to matter to them at all that I was sitting right there, soaking all this up.

The judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and unloving spirit these Christians displayed left this young man determined not to go back to church.

Another young woman echoed these same sentiments when she said,

I'm thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It's annoying and a lot of people don't really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-core Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things and lies, and he's just not a Christian at all.

Both of these young people turned away from the Christian faith because of the actions of young Christians they knew. But this is not a phenomenon that is unique to young people. No doubt you can think of your own example of Christians you have known who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving. Some of the most insensitive, critical, judgmental, and mean-spirited people I've known were persons who claimed to be committed Christians.

I was officiating at the graveside funeral for a young man who had taken his own life. The parents were still in shock and experiencing intense grief. In the eulogy and message I sought to help them, and all who had gathered, to make sense of this terrible tragedy while finding in God comfort and hope. And we remembered the unique and special qualities of their son. Following the service a sister and brother-in-law of one of the boy's parents came to me and asked, "Why didn't you tell them that their son is in hell today?" I was taken aback and asked, "How do you know the boy is in hell today? Do you know what was in the boy's heart? Are you so certain you know the mind of God?" They looked at me and walked away. What kind of people are so certain of another's eternal fate that they can stand before grieving parents and callously tell them their son is in hell?

I could fill this book with story after story like this from my own personal experience of Christians, including a few pastors I know, who are free with their condemnation of everyone who doesn't conform to their very narrow view of the world, of the Bible, and of truth.


Of course, Jesus confronted the same kinds of things in his day. If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus never got angry with prostitutes, adulterers, or ordinary "sinners." Nor did his actions turn such people away. In fact, Jesus drew "sinners" to himself by the thousands. He made such people feel at ease. The only people Jesus had words of judgment for in the Gospels were the religious folks. What angered him the most about these people, particularly the religious leaders, was their judgmentalism, their hypocrisy, and their failure to love. They believed God was primarily interested in people following the rules. Jesus taught that God's primary rule was love, and that God's interest wasn't in condemning "sinners" but in drawing them to God.

Though Jesus was opposed by various people in the Gospels, his primary opposition was from the Pharisees, who believed that holiness and a life pleasing to God were found in separating themselves from sin and in obeying the commands of God. Although this makes sense, the Pharisees, like many modern-day Christians, had missed the point. They failed to see that God's primary concern is not rules, but people. They should have been celebrating the fact that thousands of people who had turned away from organized religion were drawn to hear Jesus teach about the kingdom of God. Instead they were repulsed by Jesus' willingness to associate with "sinners" (see Luke 15:2). In response, Jesus spoke some pretty harsh words to the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of his time. The word he used most frequently to describe them was the Greek word hupokrisis from which we get our word hypocrisy. This Greek word was used to refer to an actor in a play—a pretender.

The truth is, we're all in danger of being "pretenders" when it comes to our highest values and aspirations. This is particularly true for religious people, which is why Jesus warned his disciples on multiple occasions about hypocrisy, warnings that covered four different expressions of hypocrisy: wrong motives, judging others, "majoring in the minors," and being two-faced. Let's briefly consider what Jesus warned against in each of these areas.

1. Wrong Motives

Once when Jesus was talking to his followers, he warned them about the dangers of praying, fasting, and helping the poor for the wrong reasons. He talked about people who would pray on street corners, blow a loud trumpet when they were about to give to a needy person, and make sure everyone who saw them knew they were fasting so that others would know how "religious" they were and praise them for it. Their desire was not to grow close to God or to humble themselves before God, but to gain attention and accolades and the praise of people. They were using God and their religion to further their careers or their stature in the community, or to meet their needs for affirmation from others.

When Christians Get It Wrong What Did Jesus Say? "So whenever you give [help to the needy], do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.... And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.... And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16)

Do we have a similar struggle today? Do we ever want someone to know that we are a Christian or that we go to a particular church because we think it will be good for our reputation, social standing, or career? Are we ever tempted to make sure people have noticed our good deeds or acts of piety? Do we ever desire to be in the spotlight—to be affirmed or praised or recognized? Of course we do! Most of us are a mixed bag of motives.

We need to continually ask ourselves this question: Am I using God, or am I allowing God to use me?

2. Pointing Out the Sin of Others Without Seeing Our Own

One day Jesus asked some religious leaders how they could criticize people who had a speck of sawdust in their eye when they didn't notice the two-by-four poking out of their own eyes (Matthew 7:1-5). He was referring to religious people who readily point out the sins of others while failing to see their own shortcomings. They demonstrate a kind of superiority and spiritual or moral pride, but they fail to see that their pride is actually a more sinister and deadly sin than the sins of those they are denouncing.

Jesus then called his hearers to remove the "log" from their own eye before seeking to remove the speck from another's eye. In What Did Jesus Say? "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7:3-5)

When Christians Are Unchristian essence, he was saying, "Stop pointing out the sins of others—you've got enough issues of your own!" We might ask ourselves if we are ever guilty of the very thing Jesus denounced in the Pharisees. Often it happens after we become a Christian or make a new commitment to follow Christ. Suddenly we no longer want to do certain things. Perhaps we used to curse a lot, so we decide we will no longer do that. Pretty soon we have stopped cursing, and that's a good thing. Or maybe we say we will no longer drink, and eventually we get to the point where we are not drinking anymore. Again, that's a good thing.

However, as we free ourselves from certain destructive behaviors, often we begin to notice that others are still doing them. Before long we begin to feel good about ourselves because we no longer do those things. Then one day we find ourselves saying to someone, "Hey, have you noticed how much Sharon curses?" or "Can you believe how much Bill drinks?" Pretty soon we have traded cursing or drinking for being prideful, which is even more dangerous to the soul.

We need to ask ourselves this question: Do I point out other people's sins without recognizing my own?

3. Majoring in Minors

The Pharisees developed a complex and intricate set of laws to govern their daily life. The word Pharisee likely comes from a Hebrew word that means "separated" or "set apart." They wanted to be holy and righteous before God, which was a good motivation. But in determining what was required to please God, they created an oral law that ensured that righteousness was defined to the smallest detail. For example, when it came to the practice of tithing—giving a tenth of their income to God—they actually separated out a tenth of the clippings from their herb plants and contributed even that. No one was going to accuse them of not living up to their obligations!

But Jesus did. Just a few days before he was crucified, Jesus sternly rebuked the Pharisees. He reminded the Pharisees that it was well and good to tithe, even down to such a detailed level, except when, at the same time you forgot about important things like justice and mercy toward your neighbor and faith in God (Matthew 23:23-24). In their quest for theological orthodoxy and religious purity, the Pharisees forgot how to love.

Unfortunately, this kind of hypocrisy is still prevalent today. We Christians fight over forms of baptism, how we interpret Scripture, and the words we use in the Lord's Prayer. We cannot even fellowship with one another but choose to divide into different denominations. In times past, we fought entire wars over our sectarian differences.

We need to ask ourselves this question: Have I forgotten Jesus' assurance that our love for one another is how the world will know we are his followers?

4. Being Two-faced

You probably know people who appeared to be one thing when you first met them, but upon getting to know them better you found they were something else entirely. Jesus knew them, too. Once he suggested that such people are like a person who washes the outside of a dirty cup but fails to wash the inside, so what drink remains inside the cup spoils (Matthew 23:25). I picture the glasses of milk and soda I used to find in my teenage daughter's room that had been sitting there for weeks—curdled, moldy, and the rankest of smells!

Jesus was speaking of a superficial faith, which is seen in the outward appearances of religious behavior but has not sunk down into the heart. Like those who focus on the minutiae, people like this have missed the bigger point of faith. Their religion is skin deep and hasn't addressed the really serious issues in their hearts—or the really important issues in society.

This description applies to too many Christians I know. They understand how to do religious things but fail to let their religion change their values, their hearts, and ultimately their daily lives. Their religion is window dressing.

We see this theme throughout the Bible. Note God's frustration with the religious people of Isaiah's day:

When you come to appear before me, who has asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; ... I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.... they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands [in prayer], I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:12-17)


Excerpted from When Christians Get It Wrong Participant Book for Small Group Study by Adam Hamilton Copyright © 2010 by Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of the fastest growing, most highly visible churches in the country.The Church Report named Hamilton's congregation the most influential mainline church in America,and PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly identified him as one of the top “Ten People to Watch.” Hamilton is the best-selling and award-winningauthor of Why? Making Sense of God's Will, 24 Hours that Changed the World, Enough, When Christians Get It Wrong, Confronting the Controversies, Making Love Last a Lifetime, Unleashing the Word, Leading Beyond the Walls,Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic, Christianity and World Religions, Christianity's Family Tree and Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, all published by Abingdon Press.

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