Is Christian Perfectionism a Danger for the Church?

The other day Rev. S. confided me that one of our pastors was causing some stir within our church’s pastoral team. It is a problem that is bound to happen every October, just before our end-of-the-year regular administrative assembly, because it is the time when we have to submit the names of candidates for all the different leadership positions within our congregation.

This particular pastor is an excellent Christian and he has our utmost respect. He earned his reputation working as a missionary in Nepal, facing paganism and demonic forces almost daily (no, I am not exaggerating), while being a good witness of Christ. But the problem with him is that he came from a Pentecostal denomination, and he is too influenced by perfectionism. Whenever we proposed some candidate, he objected pointing out a flaw or another: “But he has trouble raising his kids”… “But he is reluctant to tithe…”, “But he is divorced and remarried…”, and so on.

The other pastors of our church understand that is not realistic to expect perfection. As a side observation, I concur and I also can see that the current generation that provides our church leadership material (i.e., people usually over 45) is facing several issues and many of them lead less than perfect lives. So why point the finger to those people’s faults?

I think that most of the objections raised by this pastor come from his flawed understanding of Christian holiness, an understanding that has been tarnished by Christian perfectionism, or a doctrine that maintains that, in John Wesley’s own words, is possible for the Christian to attain in this life the “deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin”. Please note that this is not, by any means, a denial from all sin; and even the perfectionistic Wesley had a rather realistic view of sins in the Christian. After all, he was an accomplished pastor of soul and had an excellent insight on issues of sanctification and holiness. But the teaching of this doctrine led to impossible standards in most Holiness churches; and I can tell that in our particular environment, this brought the practice of double lives and hypocrisy among Pentecostals and other Holiness churches.

That’s why the doctrine of perfection is a danger for the Church: despite all its good intentions, it is a sure recipe for hypocrisy, double-standards, legalism, and judgmentalism. As for me, I prefer a church of fallen people with all its warts and difficulties rather than some shiny, “Stepford-Wiwes”-esque, pasted-smile den of hypocrites.

Despite the good intentions and the sincere intention of commend the search for holiness implied on the doctrine of Christian perfectionism, I cannot clear it as is neither Biblical nor realistic; and it is completely contrary to a true Reformed view of total depravity. Better than writing any answer to it, let me suggest you this excellent rebuttal by Zacharias Ursinus written roughly 200 years before Wesley, as a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

We need to keep in mind all the time what Paul has said so eloquently on 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. With his usual wit, my namesake Ed Hurst has nailed down the crux of the issue on the motto of his “School of Holy Cynicism” (a post of his, a post of mine): Mankind is fallen. Sinners will sin. Let’s not lose sight of this. If we do, we are doomed to fail.

4 Comments

  1. Hi there.

    I hope your new anti-spam software appreciates my comments better than the old one did šŸ™‚

    It’s great to read your post, because I ran into exactly the same issue myself very recently. It was not at my church, but with the author of an article I read online (Unfortunately I don’t have the link here). I was stunned to see the author write that “Christians do not sin”, and that therefore the person he was writing to could not be a Christian because he did sin (the person in question was struggling not entirely successfully with temptations to drink too much and to break the law by using an illegal low-grade recreational drug). The author went on to accuse me of taking sin lightly, not because I thought the sins mentioned weren’t important, but because I also classed as sin a whole bunch of other stuff that the author didn’t have a problem with (like writing really destructive e-mails to a struggling Christian …)

    Anyhow, I was amazed because I didn’t think anyone could seriously think that way, and yet here was someone who did. And because I was so amazed it took me a while to work out why it was such a destructive position. But I came to the exact same conclusion as you: that the argument inevitably leads to hypocrisy. (Stepford wives … I know exactly what you mean!) The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this was exactly the kind of teaching that Jesus so roundly opposes in the pharisees. Whitewashed tombs … indeed.

    Christians aren’t perfect, we all continue to sin from time to time. So it’s wrong (and as you say, potentially quite destructive) for us to seek perfection in our church leaders. But that raises a very interesting question. I expect my leaders to have issues in their life where they haven’t yet reconciled their behaviour with their beliefs. But there are certain specific areas where I would have a real issue with a church leader who had wrong values / beliefs / practices on a subject. The example that most readily comes to mind is divorce, because I would feel that to accept a leader who felt that divorce was an option for a Christian would be to undermine one of the key things that keeps some relationships together – the knowledge that, however bad things get, divorce is not God’s will. I’d also be uncomfortable with a youth group leader who was dating a non-Christian or with any kind of leader who was involved in … well, I’ll be coy and say an inappropriate relationship. I’d back up my thoughts by saying that I’d seen first hand the destructive effects of those particular things, and therefore that those particular kinds of sin (or otherwise non-ideal behaviour) need particular and different treatment. I could back that up by quoting Paul where he differentiates between sings against your own flesh.

    And I’d specifically apply that to leaders – I’d expect to find people like that in the church, because let’s face it, we meet Jesus wherever we are, and I’m very grateful that Jesus is reaching people in far worse situations than those I’ve described; but I’d expect leaders to have got to grips with those issues in their own lives, and therefore not to be leading people in their flock astray.

    But – is that all just cover for me being a hypocrite?

  2. Not one of us living on the earth can avoid sinning every day. While most of my sins remain inside my own head, they are no less sins in God’s eyes. In each case, I depart from God’s holy standard of His own perfection. If people do not sin, it’s because they sleep in the ground. The only question of selecting leaders is hardly the issue of perfection, but of how likely they are to exhibit destructive sins. Destroying themselves is actually a rather minor problem, as we all sin against our own flesh in varying degrees. The choice of leaders is far too complex to simply formulate on a list. The ultimate issue is whether you sense the Lord wants them there, giving Him full reign in selecting someone you might not, if left to your own devices. I’ve not met anyone who didn’t have in their fleshly minds the impression they “could do better” than someone already leading. I suffer that, too.

  3. I allowed this comment because the links are interesting and will provide food for thought, even though I do not agree with them. For the next time, I would appreciate more politeness (i.e., avoiding all caps), and a real name, for a change.

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