Not long ago I attended a conference held on the restored grounds of a century-old utopian community. As I ran my fingers over the fine workmanship of the buildings and read the plaques describing the daily lives of the true believers, I marveled at the energy that drove this movement, one of dozens spawned by American idealism and religious fervor.
Many varieties of perfectionism have grown on American soil: the offshoots of the Second Great Awakening, the victorious-life movement, the communes of the Jesus movement. In recent times, though, the perfectionist urge has nearly disappeared. Nowadays we tilt in the opposite direction, toward a kind of anti-utopianism. The burgeoning recovery movement, for example, hinges on a person’s self-confessed inability to be perfect.
I confess my preference for this modern trend. I find it far easier to see human fallibility than perfectibility, and I have cast my lot with a gospel based on grace. Yet in New Harmony, Indiana, I felt an unaccountable nostalgia for the Utopians: all those solemn figures in black clothes breaking rocks in the fields, devising ever-stricter rules in an attempt to rein in lust and greed, striving to fulfill the lofty commands of the New Testament. The mere names of the places they left behind are enough to break your heart: New Harmony, Peace Dale, New Hope, New Haven.
The Catholic church has bred its share of perfectionism as well. I have studied the rule of Saint Benedict and read the stirring accounts of early Jesuit missionaries who sailed to Japan and China. Compared with such dedication, the current wave of short-term missions seems like a consumer fad.
The Barrier Reef Of Original Sin
Yet most utopian communities—like the one I was standing in—survive only as museums. Perfectionism keeps running aground on the barrier reef of original sin. A few years back a book by Douglas Frank, Less Than Conquerors, offered a perceptive analysis of why perfectionism fails. Charles G. Trumbull, a leader in the victorious-life movement, once said, “It is the privilege of every Christian to live every day of his life without breaking the laws of God in known sin either in thought, word or deed.” Such high ideals, observes Frank, paradoxically lead to despair and defeatism. Despite all good efforts, human beings don’t achieve a state of sinlessness, and in the end, they often blame themselves.
Frank points out yet another flaw in perfectionism: too often it disintegrates into pettiness (one of the criticisms Jesus made of the Pharisees). In an attempt to dilute the delights of the flesh, Charles Finney’s Oberlin College banned coffee, tea, pepper, mustard, oil, and vinegar. The experiment did not last long, as any recent visitor to Oberlin can attest.
I grew up in a climate of severe perfectionism from which I have spent much of life recovering, and I learned firsthand the pettiness of modern fundamentalism. My church debated the morality of bowling alleys (“Don’t they serve liquor?”) and roller skating (“They hold hands!”) but cared not a whit about human rights in South Africa or civil rights at home in Georgia.
Still, despite a potent inoculation against the abuses of perfectionism, I feel this nostalgia, even longing, for the quest itself. I read with amazement Thomas Merton’s Ascent to Truth, which chronicles one man’s full-time search for mystical union with God. I burn with shame as I read the Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim, which tells of a peasant who took literally the command to “Pray without ceasing” and prayed the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) 7,000 times a day.
How can we in the church uphold the ideal of holiness while avoiding the consequences of disillusionment, pettiness, abuse of authority, spiritual pride, and exclusivism? Or, to ask the opposite question, how can we moderns who emphasize support (never judgment), honesty, and introspection keep from aiming too low? As an individualistic society, America is in constant danger of freedom abuse; its churches are in danger of grace abuse.
With these questions in mind, I read through most of the Epistles this summer, in a different order than usual. First I read Galatians, with its magnificent charter of Christian liberty and its fiery pronouncements against petty legalism. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul declared (5:1). But three paragraphs later he added these words, “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”
Next I turned to James, that “right strawy epistle” that stuck in Martin Luther’s throat. I was familiar with James’s stern admonitions, but I had not noticed his formula for obtaining holiness. James balanced each prodding to “Strive harder!” with the simple advice to depend on God (1:5, 17, 21; 2:24; 4:3, 7; 5:11). “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” he concluded.
I read Ephesians and then 1 Corinthians, Romans and then 1 Timothy, Colossians and then 1 Peter. In every epistle, without exception, I found both messages: the high ideals of holiness and also the safety net of grace reminding us that salvation does not depend on our meeting those ideals. Ephesians pulls the two strands together neatly: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:8–10, NIV).
I took comfort that the church in the first century was already on a seesaw, tilting now toward perfectionist legalism and now toward raucous antinomianism. James wrote to one extreme; Paul often addressed the other. Each letter had a strong, correcting emphasis, but all stressed the dual message of the gospel. The church, in other words, should be both: a people who strive toward holiness and yet relax in grace, a people who condemn themselves but not others, a people who depend on God and not themselves.
The seesaw is still lurching back and forth. Some churches tilt one way, some another. My reading of the Epistles left me yearning for a both/and church. I have seen too many either/or congregations.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- Editor's PickI Find Comfort in the Divine WarriorA surprising psalm changed my view on God’s presence during seasons of trial.