Evangelical Questions: Perfection?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about perfection. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
We are on Week 46. This year of Come Follow Me is rapidly coming to a close which means that talking about how Evangelicals view things in the Bible doesn’t really make sense next year because we’ll be doing Book of Mormon year. And I know several of you have wondered what will happen next year. Fear not. Things will change for next year, this particular podcast needs to pivot a bit, but I will still be around. FAIR is working on a show in addition to this one where there will be fewer episodes, but higher quality. I have been working with 2 of the best researchers FAIR has and we’re putting something together I think you’re going to like. So you will still get to see me – Congratulations and I’m sorry. I don’t know exactly what to say about that. But it will be good and I will have much more to share with you after Thanksgiving.
We have arrived at week 46 and we’re in James. 2 of the biggest verses in James that we could have talked about are James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom let him ask God…” and James 2:14 and following talking about works. We’ve actually covered both of these topics pretty well in this series, so we’re going to back up a little and talk about James 1:2-4. This is in the ESV:
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
There is some history here that will help put Evangelicals in the right context. And, as we’ve seen before many times here, even when an Evangelical church presents itself as a “community church” with no denominational tie, there is usually a tie somewhere in the background – and that might be a formal denomination that just isn’t put front and center (Lifeway Research says that over 60% of the cosmetically named churches, things like Vision Church, are Southern Baptist churches that simply do not name the SBC anywhere on their website or materials and they present themselves as if they are no ties with a larger group at all.) Or it can just show up in the education of the pastoral staff – if they all went to Dallas Theological, then you know something about where they’re coming from.
So, the particular part of the Evangelical world a church comes from matters here. Churches that are informed by the Lutheran, Reformed or Calvinistic traditions are very unlikely to ever talk about the idea of becoming, “perfect as your father in Heaven is perfect.” It’s not a category for them, and their theology reveals why. Their position is sometimes called, “hyper-sovereignty” which is trying to get at the idea that God is so perfect, so complete, so good that it’s insulting to him for any human to have the audacity to say that they could be perfect as he is perfect. So, for them verses about perfection are part aspirational – they believe God is perfect and we should try for perfection even though we will never achieve it. But they’re also part of their system that says all humans are depraved and hated by God – only the power of Jesus Christ can heal the rift between us and God. So verses like this function as a sign to point out not only how good God is, but how bad we are. You know how Paul sometimes says that the law exists to point out our sin – these folks would likely say that these verses about perfection exist to point out how imperfect we actually are. In their way of thinking perfection is impossible, even thinking we could ever do it is hubris. Their interpretation is that God is so good he is perfect, and we are so bad that we could never obtain perfection. It doesn’t feel as grim in real time for them as it sounds to you. It sounds awful, I know, but they think of it more like: The stronger of a believer you are, the more willing you are to affirm God’s goodness and your own depravity. It’s a way for them to say that they are so committed to God that they’re willing to accept their own terribleness, and its a point of pride when they’re able to do so. All of this that I’ve just described is true for Evangelical churches that are influenced by Reformed theology, probably about 60% of current Evangelical churches. But there is another side.
It started in the 1700’s with John and Charles Wesley, the brothers who begin the Methodist Church. Just for timeline, John dies about 15 years before Joseph Smith is born. The Wesleys are part of the 1st Great Awakening, and Joseph Smith is part of the 2nd Great Awakening. And what the Wesleys do is pull from the group in early Christianity known as the Church Fathers who lived in the couple hundred years after Christ. And there is plenty in their writings about the idea of perfection. But, things get weird around the 4th Century and that thinking about perfection turns into a very deep asceticism and monasticism – so life either in a cloistered monastery or life lived in public society but living with deliberate poverty and frankly, near starvation. Now, Christian history had to go that way – the fall of Rome happens right around this time and the governmental structure that had been holding Europe together disappears. And we get the dark ages. By this time Christian monastic communities were already well established in such a way that they could continue to exist. So, its not an entirely bad thing, but the Wesleys look at that and think its awful – that Christian life is intended to be lived out publicly in a way that nonbelievers can see and understand. Not cloistered away or taking vows of extreme poverty. So the Wesleys want to rewind time and go back to what the early Chruch Fathers were talking about with perfectionism. Over time, Methodists have moved away from the idea quite a bit, but it gets picked up by a group of churches known as the Holiness Movement. The Free Methodist Church (different from their much larger sibling the United Methodists), The Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), The Salvation Army, and the Wesleyan Methodist Church (the smallest of the Methodist groups.) And an awful lot of current Evangelical churches are influenced by this arc in all kinds of ways. But it gets weird.
You can trace the influence of the Wesley brothers into modern Evangelicalism in about 100 different ways. But the idea that we might become like God is not one of them. Mostly what they do is take advantage of the wiggle room that exists in the Greek word used here for perfection. There is a legitimate nuance in that word that is something closer to “mature.” So you get translations like the NIV that say, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” The ESV still gives us, “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The ESV is considered a little bit more scholarly than the NIV, but the NIV has been around for decades longer and has had more influence on Evangelicals. So when they read a verse like this they hear, “be mature” and it doesn’t trigger the same response that, “be perfect” does. So some of them don’t even know, “perfect” is a possible translation here.
So what do we do with all of this?
Well, first, I can’t help myself…the mental health therapist in me needs to tell you that this conversation has nothing to do with perfectionism or the idea that today you must do all things perfectly in order to be loved or accepted by God or others. Part of the joy of having family and friends is that those are the people who can see your imperfections and love you anyway. So we’re not talking about some kind of scrupulosity or perfectionism. And to be fair, you do see a slightly lower incidence of these issues in an Evangelical population than you do in a Latter-day Saint population.
But as far as how to talk with Evangelicals about this, let me offer you my experience when I was an Evangelical. I didn’t know a lot about Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I had picked up some things along the way, not as any kind of serious study, just part of being alive in the 20th century in America. And I can say from that perspective that there is some overlap for people outside our church on the concepts of “perfection” and “worthiness.” Before I knew better, I would have heard the phrase, “a worthy Latter-day Saint” as “a perfect Latter-day Saint.” I knew that didn’t make sense, but I also knew the reputation of people in the church as being good people, excellent mothers, and excellent people to have around in a crisis. So, my first thought is that if a conversation about the concept of perfection came up, you might want to make sure your friend is able to differentiate between the two concepts.
Here is my second thought. There is a quote from President Nelson long before he was the president of the church. Back in 1995 he said, “We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!” And I love that because guilt is…kind of contagious. If you feel guilty about what you have and have not done, and you’re talking about the ideas of perfection, or even worthiness with an Evangelical friend, they will intuitively feel that guilt in you. The role of guilt in spiritual or personal development must be to point out something that has gone wrong – thus prompting us to make a change to address the issue. That’s the only reason you get the emotion of guilt. It doesn’t add to your holiness, it doesn’t add to the love you receive from God. It’s a big arrow pointing to a situation or event – not to make you feel worse about yourself, but for you to do some problem-solving around how to change. We humans don’t like to change, and sometimes barely know how to change, but that is the role of guilt – to point to where change needs to happen. In that sense its an empowering and problem-solving emotion. But what we do a lot of times is turn guilt to shame – instead of, “I did a bad thing” it becomes, “I am a bad thing.” That’s not growth or development, that’s self-pity. As much as you can, for your sake and the sake of those with whom you talk about gospel issues, let the feelings you have about your own lack of perfection be the things that makes you progress forward – not stay stuck on how awful you are for getting something wrong. So much overlap between this and mental health, forgive me for my soapbox.
Okay, next week is Priesthood of all Belivers. Come back and we’ll have some fun.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.