When “Perfection” is the opposite of “Perfect”

Perfect 10In a recent exchange on the Anglican Communion Linked-In page, one of the participants in the conversation challenged me on my assertions that the goal of Christian community was not to achieve and maintain perfection, and that neither Jesus Christ nor the Apostle Paul ever intended to start a religion named “Christianity.”

So I’d like to comment briefly here on the concepts of “perfection” and “religion.”

If we moderns are not careful in our use of terms, we run the risk of overlying the original means of the words of Scripture with our own connotations.

For example, we tend to think of perfection in the absolute sense, as in entirely without error, wholly without defect, as something or someone having achieved a state of being which complete in-and-of itself.  When we hear Jesus say, “You are to be perfect as your Father in heave is perfect,” we view it as reaching a state of perfection exactly like God’s state of perfection.  However, the writers of the New Testament used the term in a more nuanced way. Our sense of perfect is close to the Greek “aortist” tense, which connotes an act that is complete and permanent. But in all the places where we are being asked to be “perfect,” the tense is notaortist, as in completed once-and-for-all, but “imperfect,” as in an ongoing process. Paul implies as much when he says “not that I have already become perfect” (Phil. 3:12) and when he says that God “will perfect” a good work in us “until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

In the New Testament the term for perfection that is almost always used of human beings is “telios,” which means to be made complete or whole in terms of one’s ultimate purpose. When used to describe us, it generally describes not completion/wholeness in isolation, but being made perfect by becoming part of something greater than oneself: becoming more complete as part of the body of Christ, which itself is becoming more complete by its relationship with Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul avoids using the term perfection human beings as individuals but rather in reference to our being brought to our ultimate purpose of being by becoming a part of something greater than ourselves: the body of Christ. This is the sense of Hebrews 11:40 when it says that God had “provided something better for us, so that apart from us they [the faithful of old] would not be made perfect.”

So perhaps a better translation for the passage above would be, “All of you must allow yourselves to be being made perfect by the perfection of your Father in heaven.”

Religion is also a slippery term, which we moderns tend to use interchangeably with the word “faith.” The word “religion” has its origin in the Latin of the Roman Empire. In Latin, the term was “religio” (literally, “bound again”) and referred to being bound by the rules and forms that comprised the official public religion of the state. In the privacy of their own homes people were allowed to supplement the official religion with their own private worship and beliefs (called “supersticio,” literally “placed on top of”), as long as they never became public and never publicly contradicted the official rules and forms. Jesus was not interested in binding people to official rules of public piety. Paul was never into binding people to doctrinal codes. Which is why I say that at its heart, Christianity is not about be bound by religion but about being transformed by relationship: relationship with Christ and with the body of Christ.

Indeed, if we are not careful, we can easily fall into thinking that the purpose of the Church is to achieve a perfect set of rules, doctrines, and practices, and then to maintain them in their perfected form until Jesus returns. Yet our real goal might be better described as seeking continuously transformed into greater wholeness, completeness, and connectedness with our ultimate purpose by the renewing of our hearts and minds in the context of our relationship with Christ and through each other.

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