Going on to Perfection?

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Each year at Annual Conference the most embarrassing moment comes when the ordinands are asked: Do you expect to be made perfect in this life? They all answer Yes. I did, when it was my turn, years ago. But it was not true. I really did not expect to be made perfect in this life, and I expect it even less today. And the embarrassment that is expressed by all when this question is asked and answered indicates that I am not alone.

Why do we continue this charade? The answer, of course, is tradition. The Methodist movement began as one that believed entire sanctification was a possibility, and that since it was possible, all should ask God for this gift and expect to receive it. Over the generations the problems with this expectation became more and more manifest; so the major Methodist churches ceased to emphasize this idea. Sects split off in order to hold to this point with even greater force than the original movement. But the denomination has never wanted to change the ritual of ordination. It is our expression of our loyalty to our founder and the seriousness with which we take his vision.

One advantage of this awkward situation is that it has forced us to keep thinking about what perfection is. When Jesus told us to be perfect, what did he mean? I, for one, do not believe that I will ever be perfect by any of the meanings that have been proposed, but reflecting about these alternative meanings does help us to think more clearly about the growth in grace to which I, like most Methodists, remain firmly committed. The idea of what is perfect is the idea of what we should be growing towards.

There are three major ways in which Christians have thought of perfection. The first is in terms of obedience to laws or conformity to principles. In the Jewish context that would have been an easy way to think. Many Jews did seek to conform their lives completely to the Torah. Although Christians have not understood perfection in just that way, again and again analogous patterns have emerged.

The Christian church in its first millenia developed an elaborate understanding of Christian morality covering every aspect of life. Yet it recognized that the rules it taught still left one struggling with all the ambiguities of ordinary life, of family responsibilities, political responsibilities, and earning a living. Even complete obedience to all these rules would not constitute perfection. To be perfect one would have to take another step, separate oneself from those involvements that forced one to compromise. In short, one must become a religious person, taking the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. One would then cease to be involved in the competition for money and the complexities of sexual and family life. Finally, by renouncing the right to make one’s own decisions, by obeying always one’s religious superior, one could avoid the ambiguities that are involved in choice as such. In this way one could be perfect.

The Reformers rejected this whole pattern along with any idea of human perfection. They taught that we are sinners through and through. Our goal is to let grace give us faith, not to cease to be involved in the ambiguities and complexities of life in society or to escape the responsibility to make our own decisions. Still, the Reformers continued to hold high ideals before people. They did not ask for the renunciation of all property, but they did teach that people should give to the needy all they could afford. Both Luther and Wesley handled a lot of money, but neither kept any for himself.

A second meaning of perfection is captured better by the words wholeness or completeness. Those who think in this way often belittle the value of laws and principles. Life needs to be as inclusive as possible. Whereas laws tend to place a great deal of experience off limits, the goal of completeness leads to breadth. The perfect person is the well-rounded person, the open person, the venturesome person.

In the past generation this goal has been important for many people in and out of the church. It has been profoundly liberating and healing. The ideal of wholeness and completeness has also played an important and creative role in the churches in this generation. The churches are themselves trying to become more inclusive, and there has been a great deal of progress. The walls that have separated ethnic groups have been breached. The exclusion of women from positions of leadership has ended. The church is far more whole and, in this important sense, far more perfect than it was forty years ago when I began my ministry.

But when this ideal of perfection is focused on the individual it can also display limitations. I once spent a week in a human potential growth group experience. I remember one woman in the group who was sacrificing many opportunities for her personal life because she was spending much of her time and energy making a home for her mother. The ethos of the group was supportive only of perfection as completeness or wholeness, and she was repeatedly encouraged to find some other arrangement for her mother so that she could have a fuller and richer life herself. She was made to feel somewhat guilty for her reluctance to hurt her mother in this way.

Perhaps the advice was well taken. I do not know. But there seemed to be very little sensitivity as to what this would do to the mother. The discussion left me feeling that the ideal of completeness or wholeness by itself does not suffice, when that wholeness is understood individualistically.

A third way of understanding perfection is the one that underlies the question in the ordination service. That is Wesley’s own emphasis. For him perfection means perfection in love. It means that love of God and neighbor controls all of our actions, that indeed they dominate all our motivations. Everything we do and feel is governed by this love. In the context of the passage from which our text this morning is taken, this means especially that we love our enemies.

I think that the church has made some progress in this respect as well. I was struck by the contrast in the church’s rhetoric in World War II in comparison with World War I. Although in fact a stronger case could be made that God was on our side in the second than in the first war, the churches did not use this language. They had learned that God is against war, that all of us share responsibility in bringing war about, and that we needed to pray more for God’s will to be done rather than for God to punish our enemies.

This ideal also has its limitations when taken alone. It can lead to a failure to love oneself and to take care of oneself. Even at the level of the institutional church this can happen. In the 1960’s this Annual Conference decided to stop spending its resources on itself, and that meant to stop building new congregations. Instead it spent its resources on ministries in the inner city where the need was indeed very great. It is hard to fault that decision if one understands perfection as Wesley did. But today our conference has grown weaker and its ability to minister to human need is considerably reduced.

Most churches, I suspect, think of perfection in some mixture of these three ways. We do think of some pattern of life, some conformity to principles, as being good. We also think of inclusiveness as important. And, at least if we are Methodists, we are likely to emphasize that real perfection is perfection of love. Most of the time there is no need to sort these things out. The practical results move us in the same direction. But when we face difficult questions as a church, this general agreement breaks down. Indeed, it is just because it breaks down that issues are controversial, with people discovering that their ideas of what the church should be doing differ from one another.

Our church is now facing a controversial issue. We are considering announcing ourselves to be a reconciling congregation. Of course, in a general sense, there is nothing controversial about that. All Christians believe in reconciliation. But just what that means, with whom one should be reconciled, and on what terms, can turn out to be a very difficult question.

For example, if we were confronting a group of militant white supremacists, we would, I trust, seek reconciliation. But that would not mean that we would compromise our convictions that the church should be inclusive of other ethnic groups on a basis of equality. We would try to love the white supremacists as children of God, but in love we would try to broaden their horizons and help them to become free from their prejudices. The church would not accept them as they are into positions of church leadership, because we feel that racism is contrary to the gospel.

The concrete issue we face today has to do with homosexuals. Noone can dispute that the church has an ugly record in its treatment of homosexuals in the past. Its teaching has contributed greatly to their centuries-long suffering. They have been treated as if they were fundamentally immoral or unclean and have been made to feel profoundly inferior. In some periods persecution has gone much farther than that. None of us, I am sure, want to continue this persecution.

Some are convinced that one of the highest priorities of the church today is to repent of this past, and continuing, record. Such repentance cannot be simply remorse, it must be turning around and going the other way. It means renouncing the false and cruel teaching and practice of the past and publicly welcoming homosexual people to be a full and equal part of the Christian community. The fact that they still experience so much ridicule and contempt in so much of society is all the more reason for the church to state in unequivocal terms that they are welcome and appreciated.

Others who certainly do not want to be part of the historic cruelty that still continues, nevertheless are not ready to accord public Christian acceptance to any homosexual lifestyle. Some believe that homosexuals can and should convert to heterosexuality and that the church’s acceptance would discourage that conversion. Others believe that homosexually inclined people should live totally celibate lives, and that only on that basis can the church accept them as full participants in its life.

I am glad that as a congregation we have decided to debate the question of whether we should become a reconciling congregation. Some of the issues we will discuss will be psychological and sociological ones. That is fine. But we cannot go far into this discussion without reflecting on our deepest theological convictions. For example, what is the perfection to which we are called?

Those whose view of perfection is most bound up with laws and principles are the ones most likely to resist the reconciliation we are discussing. Laws and principles are usually rooted in tradition, and the traditions we have inherited are almost all anti-homosexual. They are all patriarchal in the sense that they express and support a view of society as dominated by fathers and husbands. In that society women have a place, albeit a subordinate one, but homosexuals, especially male homosexuals, have none.

Those who emphasize completeness or wholeness are likely to reject any laws or principles that teach that one set of desires is inherently evil or inferior. They want all of us to be fulfilled sexually as in all other aspects of our lives, and they would like the church to encourage this. They see the extension of inclusiveness on the part of the church to those of a different sexual orientation as continuous with the extension to different ethnic groups and to women. For the sake of everyone this barrier to wholeness needs to be broken through.

What of those who follow Wesley in emphasizing perfection in love. They cannot allow fear and contempt to influence their actions, and they will not be bound by the prejudices of the past, however prestigious the authorities who may be cited. But will they think that love of homosexuals leads to trying to direct them away from their homosexuality rather than to affirm them as homosexual people? Will they ask homosexuals to become perfect in a love that leads them to sacrifice themselves to traditional church standards? No doubt some will think in that way.

For myself, however, it seems that love should ask of homosexuals just as much and as little discipline in their sexual lives as it asks of heterosexuals in theirs. In our day of sexual confusion, it is not always clear just what that is. But if we can break through our silence on these difficult issues and work together, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, to come to a new understanding of what God calls us to be as sexual beings, then there is a chance that the church may once again become a responsible teacher in this confusing, but immensely important, area. For me it seems that to love a person who is a homosexual is to accept that person as a fellow-struggler to find God’s will rather than to suppose that he or she is further removed than I from that will.

The move from our shared conviction that perfection, at least in part, is perfection in love, to any specific conviction about what this church should do now in its present circumstances is an indirect one. Not all of us will draw the same conclusions. But that is not a reason to avoid the discussion. I will grow as I learn your reasons for concluding as you do. Perhaps you can grow as you learn my reasons too. As a church we can grow by becoming more honest and more open with one another.

I do not believe that I will be made perfect in this life. I do not believe the Claremont United Methodist Church will ever become perfect either. But I do believe that particular imperfections can be set aside, that love can be applied to more areas of our personal and corporate lives. Facing a difficult decision as a congregation can be one way of growing in grace together.

For my part I hope that we will decide that it is time for our society and our denominations to seek forgiveness from those they have so long treated with cruelty. As I think of what we as a congregation can do, I can find no better step than to declare ourselves a reconciling congregation. But I know that I may be wrong, that I may have misunderstood the application of love in this difficult area. The church that is growing toward perfection is a place where, without shame and embarrassment, we can share our convictions with one another and truly listen to one another with respect for the Christian commitment of all. If I am wrong, and if you love me as a Christian brother, you are called to help me see my error. I will hope to be able to listen to your admonitions without defensiveness, truly willing to learn from you. If we can reflect together in this way, whatever our official decision as a congregation, we will in fact become, in the general sense on which we can all agree, a reconciling congregation. May God bless us.