I am having a blast teaching United Methodist Doctrine to a group of theology school students. I’ve been out of the classroom for a year, so it feels good to get back in there.
Yesterday, we covered that part of United Methodist doctrine that John Wesley called “‘the grand depositum’ for which Methodists were chiefly raised up.” He referred to it variously as, Christian perfection (uh oh), being made perfect in love, holiness of heart and life, and sanctification. Ironically (as I mentioned to the class), this doctrine has almost completely disappeared from common United Methodist discourse.
Why? Well, several historical reasons which I won’t indulge here, but a couple of contemporary prejudices help to quell much talk about sanctification or holiness. Those two dread terms, “legalism” and “perfectionism” stand like Scylla and Charybdis, menacing any Christian who might venture too close.
Our conversation yesterday set me to thinking about how talk about and teaching on “legalism” and “perfectionism” thwart our growth in Christ. I’m trying to write a book on spiritual maturity and I’m re-telling and contemporizing parts of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, believing that he has some deeply important things to say to us in 2010. The mere vision of spiritual maturity as God’s intended goal for us sets some Christians to trembling and grumbling about the need not to be “legalistic” or become “perfectionists.” Let me see if I can unpack this box of problems with a couple of observations.
Legalism: the heart of this problem is self-sufficiency, not sincerely trying to follow a rule or pattern. If we follow Paul’s criticism of legalism (in Galatians, for example), then the basic problem lies in the assumption that we can, of our own native ability and strength, keep the law. Worse, self-sufficient people of this ilk actually think they are keeping the law while we lesser sorts are not. Legalism is self-sufficiency, not commitment to a high standard. We cannot use the term “legalism” to trump this aim. The life of holiness demands accountability.
Perfectionism: at its core, perfectionism exudes the spirit of condemnation. Contrary to common belief, the worst part about being a perfectionist is not trying and trying and never measuring up. It is the judgment that one is therefore somehow unacceptable because one tried and failed. Two problems (at least) arise here. First, what standard of measure are we using when we conclude that we tried, but failed? Some vague notion of what? Flawlessness? What does it look like, this flawlessness, in actual practice? Second, we think the cure for “perfectionism” is not to get “too hung up” about trying very hard. “It’s not about doing,” so the saying goes, but about “being.” False dichotomy, if there ever was one.
I am certainly not interested in putting people on some sort of grinding spiritual treadmill. Sanctification (being made holy), like justification, flows from God’s gracious action, so the ability to live a holy life comes from God. But it does not happen automatically and if we don’t even have holiness as at least part of our vision for living a fully committed Christian life, then how do we know or care to reach for God’s vision of fully Christian discipleship?