Is Kim Davis a hypocrite for refusing to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples despite having been divorced three times and having children out of wedlock? Perhaps she is indeed a hypocrite, as many are so quick to assume. But this seems to betray a confusion over the apparent order of events in her life. Now by all appearances a committed Christian, Davis may have made an “oblique acknowledgment” that her divorces and extra-marital relations were indeed contrary to biblical principles, but repented of these acts after her conversion. Every Christian should be familiar with this spiritual chronology—as it is often said, one must descend before ascending.

If this is correct, then can we still call her a hypocrite? If one is a hypocrite for speaking out against immoral acts of which she has repented, we must also level the charge of hypocrisy at, say, the recovered alcoholic who advocates against alcohol abuse. If hypocrisy applies to any imperfect-yet-penitent individual who takes a moral stand, who among us is not a hypocrite? And if we’re all guilty, doesn’t the charge of hypocrisy lose some of its power to humble the hypocritical?

We would do well to recall the life of St. Moses the Ethiopian, a thief and murderer before his conversion. It would be absurd to suggest that the Church should regard him as a hypocrite for having exhorted his followers to live a holy life even though he himself had committed grave sins. After all, he had renounced these acts upon his conversion, and dedicated himself to a life of metanoia (or repentance) afterwards.

Indeed, there is a sense in which St. Moses had attained to his spiritual stature not in spite of his sins, but because of them. That is, the very extent of his fallenness led to an acute awareness of his need for God’s healing. His shame was transfigured into a spirit of penitence. Having descended to the depths of humility, he was able to ascend the heights of sanctity. The more that the branches of a lemon tree bend, St. John of the Ladder teaches us, “the more fruit you will find there.”

C. S. Lewis expresses a similar idea, suggesting, through the demonic character of Screwtape, that the “great sinners” might be cut from the same cloth as the “great saints”:

The great sinners seem easier to catch. But then they are incalculable. After you have played them for seventy years, the Enemy [i.e., God] may snatch them from your claws in the seventy-first. They are capable, you see, of real repentance. They are conscious of real guilt.

Far from denouncing St. Moses as a hypocrite, the Church holds him up as a testament to the power of metanoia, as a reminder that no one is deprived of God’s love and the possibility of reconciliation with Him.

No, no, no: I am not implying that Davis is a saint. Perhaps she is hypocritical. Perhaps her defiance is motivated less by principle, and more by the desire to “cash in” on her supposed heroism. Perhaps her actions set a dangerous precedent in terms of our respect for the rule of law.

I have no right to judge her one way or another. But the purpose of this essay is to address the question: What really makes one a hypocrite? In my view, holding others to a standard that you refuse to follow yourself—not a standard that, to your regret, you have fallen short of because of weakness or ignorance—is what truly merits this epithet.

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17). It shouldn’t surprise us to find sick people at the doctor’s office. One is a hypocrite only to the extent that he refuses treatment while urging others to cure their own sickness.

Update: in an earlier version of this article, I cited a piece in the American Conservative that drew critical attention to a letter attributed to Kim Davis.  It turns out that the letter was a hoax (a very successful one, evidently), and I offer my sincerest apologies to Mrs. Davis for the error.