One of the primary reasons nonbelievers cite for their lack of faith is the hypocrisy of Christians. This is echoed in Gandhi’s damning judgment about liking Christ but not liking Christians. The history of moral failures and sexual scandals from some of the church’s most public figures need not be repeated here, but their negative effects are indeed far-reaching and long lasting.
According to philosopher and cultural critic Charles Taylor, our secular age is the age of authenticity. Our culture expects a “what you see is what you get” experience and insists that the most heroic thing we can do is to be true to ourselves. The greatest offense is, therefore, being inauthentic.
The virtue of authenticity, or “being real,” is both one of the greatest needs for the church today, and also its greatest threat. We live in a time when the church’s testimony regarding Jesus, salvation, and truth, is scrutinized largely by how well we display this claim to redemption. Nonetheless, the church must resist the temptation to make authenticity the chief end of the Christian life, or even what receives the most emphasis in our self-reflection. Failure to do so would be a profound mistake, and its consequences would be costly.
Why Authenticity Matters
First we must recognize that authenticity is an all-important theme for the Christian life. Surely relationships built on authenticity are rightly cherished, as love and trust are built on transparency and true knowledge of the other. Furthermore, small groups and accountability groups built on the premise of authenticity are invaluable, as they elicit powerful moments for confession of sin, empathy, and solidarity with one another (James 5:16). These experiences bring an uncommon vibrancy to church life (even if sometimes the most destructive sins are concealed while trite sins are announced with gusto). In fact, such small groups were a key ingredient to the 18th century revival in Great Britain.
But we have further reason to welcome the rise of authenticity. Jesus spared no words in rebuking religious people whose public lives modeled one reality while their hearts were in a different place altogether (Matt. 23; Luke 12:1). “Being real” appears to be the starting place for God’s work in our lives, as entering the kingdom of God requires admitting our guilt and acknowledging our dependence on God for forgiveness.
The Problem with Authenticity as the Chief End
While authenticity remains a basic starting place for Christians, and is often the conduit by which God works to put us into meaningful community, the church has a higher calling—it is to share in the holiness of God.
First, we must note the near silence of the New Testament on the theme of authenticity. While something could be said about integrity, which means consistently demonstrating sound moral character, authenticity is not treated as a virtue. On the other hand, the pervasive themes of holiness and sanctification are reassuring. Holiness is both the call and promise for the Christian in the gospel (Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15-16; 1 Thess. 5:24).
Second, universal experience signals that a person’s first impulse is typically not the one that honors God. If a person were to engage in self-expression through the heroic act of being true to one self, there is no telling what might happen to our social fabric. Not to mention, what one culture says is being true to yourself may be exactly what the next culture rejects with vigor. Take self-promotion and aggression, for example: these were once heralded as virtues to be celebrated. Today, they are considered repulsive and even dangerous.
The Promise of the Gospel and Redeemed Authenticity
The marvelous thing is the way in which the gospel redeems both God’s people and the place of authenticity in our communities. When the church pursues holiness as its chief end, being true to ourselves actually becomes beautiful and virtuous, as the church is transformed into a truly holy people. By practicing the means of grace and developing holy habits—that perhaps begin as difficult, mechanical rhythms that rage against our flesh—we take on the image of Christ more and more. We begin to desire the things of God by training our spiritual senses (1 Cor. 9:27).
Notice that Paul writes literarily in Romans 7 as one who cries out without the Spirit of God. This, however, is categorically not the enduring struggle of the Christian. Indeed, we “are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9). This is why Paul was able to write in another place, “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord…” (1 Thess. 1:5-6). Here we see both authenticity and holiness modeled in the lives of God’s servants.
The threat authenticity poses for the church is that of settling into a defeatist mentality. On the other hand, it may just be that the most heroic thing a Christian can do is to live out of their identity in Christ. By developing holy habits and surrendering ourselves to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we can truly become a holy people, and this transformed life is the kind of authenticity our world needs to see.