The Other Kind of Hypocrisy (a Guest Post for Leslie Vernick)

This post is being simultaneously published at the website of Leslie Vernick.


I’ve been urged to watch 13 Reasons Why to see the 13 reasons (why) a young friend hates it so much. (Though I’ve read and heard enough about it to understand it, so far I’ve been able to get through only the first episode). The bullying she personally experienced at her Christian school, she said, was pretty much everything that happened in this Netflix series, and more.

One of the most important things she described to me about her school was the dynamic of bullying. Some students there were genuinely nice people, but they lived in such an environment of fear that whenever the main bullies were around, they remained silent or even participated in the bullying if necessary, so they wouldn’t become a target. (You may wonder why no one tried to alert teachers or administrators about this massive problem, but someone did and it wasn’t believed, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog post.)

So while I was pondering the dynamics of a bullying school environment that went stratospherically beyond anything I had experienced in my own high school days of mild bullying, we heard a sermon on Galatians 2.

“Well, what do you know,” says I to myself, “there it is again!”

The story goes that the apostle Peter and the other Jewish Christians were actually welcoming the Gentile Christians and even eating with them (a truly big deal in those days) . . . until the bullies came.

The bullies weren’t swaggering studs or prima donna divas; they were the very righteous looking rule-followers described by the apostle Paul as “those of the circumcision.” (In other words, the ones who said, “Look here, fella, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll become a Jew before you become a Christian. That’s the only way to God.”)

When the bullies came, they filled the entire environment with fear.

Even the apostle Peter was afraid of them. I’ve pondered how that could happen, when he had the boldness in Acts 2 to preach the way he did, but I guess it just goes to show that intimidation can happen even to strong believers.

And when it happened to Peter . . . it happened to all of them. All of the Jewish Christians who had been happily eating and interacting with the Gentile Christians all drew back and separated themselves again, as if the Gentile believers were the pariahs they had been considered to be before Christ came. Even Barnabas, the one who had so boldly stood up for Paul in Acts 9.

The apostle Paul is the one telling this story. He came into this environment of fear and laid Peter out straight in no uncertain terms, because the very essence of the gospel hung on the truth of who Christ welcomed into His Kingdom and at what level. (An excellent study for another day.)

But how did Paul refer to what Peter and the others were doing?

Two-facedness. Dissimulation. Hypocrisy.            

This was a very important point to me, as I’ve become aware in recent years of the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing kind of hypocrisy. This kind of hypocrisy is fundamentally different.

That one embodies the two-facedness of one who is wicked in private and Mr. NiceGuyChristian (or Dr. SuperChristian or any of several other holy permutations) in public.

This one embodies the two-facedness of one who is kind in private but who participates in the bullying—or at the least draws back from support for those being bullied—in public.

Then the other day I was reminded of a third kind of hypocrisy—or maybe better, a kind of “pretending.” And I believe this completes the circle by which an entire system of hypocrisy remains in place in many of our churches.

I had considered before the fact that while the abuser lives a double life, in most churches his victim also has to live a double life. Then I found this double life very aptly described in this blog post, in the advice given to the wife of an emotionally abusive man who according to the description is “rude, surly, and angry all the time,” “spends a lot of time in the basement [emphasis in original],” and sometimes “curses, yells, calls us all kinds of names, and throws things.” The advice given takes up the whole blog post, and I’ve already written an alternative reply, but I’d like to zero in again on this one paragraph:

What does respectful and pure behavior look like? Peter [in I Peter 3] gives us the first clue. It means becoming your husband’s greatest cheerleader. Praise him when he does anything well. Notice and comment on it when he is respectable in anything. Talk him up to the kids, friends, neighbors. Cook good meals, things he likes. Do all your wifely duties with joy and excitement. Be transformed into who you would be if he were the greatest husband on the planet. Remember, that you are doing this for Jesus Christ, the one who died for you, not for your husband (as if he were your lord). You have risen above your situation and you are serving [your husband] because you are serving God.    

If a woman in this situation were to try to follow this counsel, she would be living a sham life, yes. But I believe it’s more complicated than that. There’s fear involved, and perhaps shame, but I don’t think they’re the only ingredients.

I believe a primary motivation behind this kind of pretending is the desire to do the right thing.

If a Christian wife plays a pretender in an abusive marriage—pretending her husband is wonderful when in reality he’s abusive—it is often because she has been told to do so by people she respects. She has been told this is what will be honoring to her husband. She has been told this is what will change her husband to be the kind and good husband she thought she married. She has been told this is what the Word of God teaches.

The fact is, though, that this is not true. This kind of “hypocrisy” is not honoring to her husband (living a lie is never honoring to anyone). This isn’t what the Word of God teaches. She has been given destructive counsel, and as a consequence is made far more vulnerable to the destructive attitudes and actions of the destroyer.

In Joy Starts Here, authors Jim Wilder, et al, describe a church environment that more or less parallels what I’m talking about. For the most obvious hypocrite, they give the obvious name Predator. For the ones who have remained silent because of fear, they give the name Possum.

possum playing dead so he won't get dead for reals
pretending they just don’t see or hear anything (“I believe the elders”) can be a pretty good way for some people to be left alone

I’ll add that for the ones who are preyed upon who act as if all is well because they’ve been told to and because they genuinely hope it will help their marriage, I’d give the name Pretender.

There’s a fourth group the Joy Starts Here authors refer to, though. It’s the ones who refuse to play this deadly game, the ones who will speak truth, for themselves, for their children, and for others. They give that group the name Protectors.

In my friend’s Christian school, there wasn’t one of those. In many churches there isn’t one.

In the story of Peter in Galatians 2, the Protector was the apostle Paul. Can you imagine what those Gentile Christians must have felt to hear him speak?

In reference to the bad advice for young wives blog post, the Protector was every person who spoke up in social media in defense of that young woman, whether she was a real person or only representative of many in our churches who have been given such destructive counsel.

There is a hypocritical dynamic permeating many churches and parachurch organizations.

But I’ll add, it’s a dynamic that newcomers are often unable to readily perceive. In fact, I believe there’s a fifth group that I can’t give a “P” name to—the Unaware, who haven’t discerned this destructive power dynamic going on in the churches and parachurch organizations. If and when they’re made aware of it, though (as I talked about in this blog post), they must make a decision. Will they roll over and play dead?

like this possum

Or will they rise up?

By the grace of God, by the Spirit of God, “Possums” can rise up to become Protectors. That was the case with Peter and Barnabas—they humbly learned their lesson from Paul and thoroughly changed to fearlessly embrace their Gentile brothers and sisters.

That can become the case too, more and more, in our churches.

I pray that many who have played the happy pretender because they believed it was the right thing to do to help their marriage will understand that God is honored by honesty. Not vindictiveness. Not maliciousness. But honesty.

I pray that many who have played the blind and deaf hypocrite because they were uncaring or afraid or intimidated will become discontent with the half-life of worshipping God while ignoring their neighbor next to them who is dying. I pray they will become willing to expel the root of bitterness from their midst and stand up to protect those among them who are being oppressed.

Am I asking for too much? Ah, but that God we’re raising our hands to in worship is a great and mighty God. He can do great things. Let’s pray that He’ll do them here, now.

In our churches. In our Christian schools. In our Christian colleges. In our Christian seminaries. In our Christian coalitions. In our Christian ministry organizations.  Let’s pray that He’ll wake up Possums to become Protectors who will be willing to stand for the Oppressed against the Predators.

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

And that will be a beautiful thing.


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5 years ago

The other (almost alliterative) “P” word: “Unplugged”? Disconnected from the circuit of what’s really going on. Whether intentionally or out of ignorance, the result is the same: no good use to anybody, and their silence can be taken for approval.

Karen Fogarty
Karen Fogarty
5 years ago

A word of warning to potential protectors. You will often receive the full attention of the predators and may be cast from the assembly n shame for interference in the church dynamic. Often one family or group has control of a church and will not be challenged. I try to offer encouragement or a word the Lord gives me but tradition often reigns.

5 years ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

What then – don’t speak up? It’s one thing to suffer yourself because of the wicked words/actions of another – but to see innocents targeted and hurt, even destroyed, so as to up the ante?

These kinds of people are vicious murderers at heart – they will do whatever it takes to keep you silent (if they can’t take you out of their world).

I have survived such ostracision and murder only by the grace of God (the only reason I am alive is because He responded to my cries that went on for over a decade) – but my children have not, having had their minds poisoned when young by the “family”, which was and is still supported and validated by the “church”. It is astoundingly easy and convenient to castigate the one calling out the crime, shining a light on the sin.


Beth La Haise
Beth La Haise
5 years ago

I lived many years under the belief that my chaste and quiet spirit would turn my abusive husband into a godly leader in our home. He took full advantage of this having read the same patriarchal book and newsletters that I spent hours pouring over.

The abuse and infidelity led me to file for divorce when God revealed my ex-husband’s double life. Everything moved quickly and God had all the details aligned and prepared so my children and I could gain our freedom.

Our little church of homeschool, bread making, large family types were shocked to find out an elder and mentor of men in the church could do such things. The funny thing is, I was told over and over by these same people that they always felt something wasn’t right about him and with our marriage. Yet, no one ventured to address it with him.

Right before God rescued us, I had planned on taking my life. I felt I could not be submissive enough and I was hurting my 5 children and husband by being such an ungodly wife. I actually had no life outside of home and church activities. Had no access to money. Had no cell phone. I was proud of my sacrifices.

I left that ultra conservative church for a mega church near our house. It’s been healing to be loved and not chained down with the law. People there feel joy about life. I joined a single mom’s group. It has been a life saver. God has used it to encourage my family in amazing ways.

Last year a woman joined our group and quickly took on a leadership role. The other two leaders left shortly after and we are realizing this woman is another spiritual abuser! I cannot even believe it but she is very similar to how my ex husband treated our family. Many in our group have been hurt by her controlling behavior and lies. We addressed the church leadership expecting them to understand. Sadly, they didn’t confront her but listened to her drama and lies and our little group was told to be forgiving and that things would get better now that she has been talked to. They have gotten worse and most of us have left that group. So back to square one. Where to go that is safe? As lovely as these people are at the new church- I feel so betrayed.

Thank you for writing this article.

Barbara Roberts
5 years ago

Rebecca said:

“…often a Christian wife who is being abused by her husband plays a pretender in an abusive marriage—pretending her husband is wonderful when in reality he’s abusive—because she has been told to do so by people she respects. She has been told this is what will be honoring to her husband. She has been told this is what will change her husband to be the kind and good husband she thought she married. She has been told this is what the Word of God teaches. … She has been given destructive counsel, and as a consequence is made far more vulnerable to the destructive attitudes and actions of the destroyer.”

The church has been mis-teaching and distorting Scriptural precepts for so long that most Christians are thoroughly bewitched by the false teachings. The false teachings are in numerous areas. Suffering. Repentance. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Submission. Authority. Who is a Christian? The doctrine of Divorce. Gossip. How to respond to enemies and evildoers. Those are the main topics which are taught in a blinkered and biased way. And the bias enables the perpetrators of abuse while compounding the victims’ suffering.

Barbara Roberts
5 years ago

The ‘pretending’ behavior of the victim is totally understandable. And it’s important that no-one blames a victim for behaving that way.

Rebecca said, “It is very often the case that a Christian wife plays a pretender in an abusive marriage—pretending her husband is wonderful when in reality he’s abusive—because she has been told to do so by people she respects.”

I was a bit disconcerted by the phrase ‘”plays a pretender” as it could imply that the abused wife is just playing a game. If an abused wife puts on a mask in public (or to herself) to pretend that her husband is wonderful and that the marriage is happy, she may be doing that for a number of reasons, but none of those reasons are ‘game playing’ on her part.

She is doing it to try to protect herself from the abuser. The abuser will escalate his abuse if she tells the truth about his evildoing. He will retaliate, he will get more dangerous. She knows that, from her experience of him over time. If she blows the whistle on his evildoing, if she expresses her grievances, if she reports the abuse, if she sets boundaries against him, he will try to abuse and intimidate her MORE in order to maintain/regain his control over her.

An abused wife is walking on eggshells, trying to avoid ‘trouble’ — trying to behave in ways that he will reduce or mitigate or prevent him mistreating her. And however she behaves, he will not stop being abusive to her. Because he loves exerting power and control and he has a whole arsenal of tactics he can use to keep her down.

The abused person ALWAYS resists the abuse. Wherever there is abuse and oppression, the abused person resists being oppressed. Resistance can take many many forms. I believe in using language that elucidates and honours the victim’s resistance. And I am very wary of language that could be interpreted as victim-blaming or language that pathologizes the victim. And I think the phrase “plays a pretender” is language that could subtly pathologize or blame the victim.

Here is a pdf which explains the principle of Honouring The Victim’s Resistance:

Barbara Roberts
5 years ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

Rebecca, on the post of your article over at Leslie Vernick’s blog, you said something in the comments thread that troubled me even more. You said: “The ideal is that the Church would encourage all people to live in integrity and not function as pretenders at all.”

Is ii fair to say that a victim is not *living in integrity* by (for example) putting on a mask to people in the church to give them the idea that she is happy in her marriage? Isn’t the victim doing that simply to try to keep safe from her abuser? Isn’t she doing that to try to avoid the trouble she will face at home from him if she reveals how unhappy she really is? Doesn’t saying the victim lacks integrity unfairly put the victim down?

Also, does anyone feel that calling a victim a “pretender” might rub the victim the wrong way? I do.

Have you read the Honouring Resistance PDF Rebecca? If not, can you please do so. I think it would help you be more aware of how to avoid using language that could denigrate or pathologize victims.

Barbara Roberts
5 years ago

Thanks Rebecca for your apology about your wording (June 3 2017 8:01pm)

We both agree the church is wrong when it teaches that if a victim pretends that they are happy being abused and mistreated, because the victim’s pretense won’t change the abuser.

Mike Lawyer comes from Doug Wilson’s church in Moscow. The big shots at that church have no compunction about enabling evildoers.

Mike Lawyer INVENTED the story in his blog post…. and I believe he published that post just to stir the pot and be a troublemaker – to raise the ire of people like yourself and distract you from getting on with other more important things that you have to do.

I give men like him no oxygen. I do not take their nonsense seriously. They are ludicrous. They are barnacles on the body of Christ. Barnacles are not part of the ship, they just cling to the ship to feed off the plankton and small fry in the ocean which the ship passes through. And barnacles on the hull of the ship slow the ship down! That’s one reason why ships are put in dry docks for a while: to scrape off the barnacles.

I do not bother responding to the wicked teachings of men like Mike Lawyer. I encourage you to do the same. I suggest you ignore men like him, because they just thrive on stirring the pot and then delight wasting the time of those who publicly express indignation about their ideas.

Men like Mike Lawyer are unteachable and will never change. Don’t be fooled by them. They are tire-kickers and time-wasters.

Rebecca, I’m glad you said that keeping safe is a valid reason to use the strategy of pretence. I have written three posts about this. Here are the links:

Barbara Roberts
5 years ago

Regarding the accusation that victims are pretenders — who really is pretending when an abuser is in a church? Not the victim – she is confused and blinded at first. The ones who pretend that there is no abuse going on in any home in the church are the pastors and members who pretend it can’t happen there.

Barbara Roberts
5 years ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

Thanks for your responses, Rebecca! I know my comments might have been felt as a little pernickety by either you or some other readers here. But I’m trusting that you are aware of how tricky it is to talk about this stuff in ways that depict the truth without demeaning any victims. 🙂

I have developed a rule of thumb for how to write about this stuff. Allow me to share it with you and your readers:

I believe it’s okay for a victim of abuse to describe some of her responses to the abuse by saying things like, “I was pretending,” or “I was enabling the abuser”. I never try to tell a victim that she is wrong to use that language about herself. If a victim chooses to use those terms about herself, she is obviously okay with using those terms to describe herself. (So I appreciate the way you’ve reported how the writer of the Visionary Womanhood blog used the term ‘pretender’ about herself.)

But I discourage victims and victim-advocates from using that kind of language about OTHER victims (or about victims in general) because it can easily be heard as blaming the victims.

And if someone is going to talk about the dynamics of how some victims may pretend that things are fine when they are not fine, I believe it’s important to give qualifiers by using words like “some, sometimes, occasionally, in certain circumstances ” etc.

I invite you to read this post of mine in which I explain this more:

Sonia Acioli
Sonia Acioli
5 years ago

I pray the victims of those oppressors may read it and have hope.

3 years ago

If you continue that Netflix series, beware: the graphic traumatic stuff gets worse, with a gang rape in the second season that left my friend in tears (and he’s a young man who can sit through just about any horror film). Taking that AND the violent suicide scene in the first season into consideration, it’s not worth my time.


[…] Even though I was regularly being laid flat (literally, if I make a full confession), I could see that my mind was still working to try to make sense of these things. From the beginning, in 2012, I mentally made categories that overlapped like Venn diagrams, which I wrote about in the early days of my advocacy work here on the BJUGrace blog, with the very boring title “Today I prayed.” (I’m learning to make better titles.)  An expanded version of the development of this thinking was guest posted on Leslie Vernick’s site as “The other kind of hypocrisy.” […]

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