The Limits of Christian Perfectionism

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Mark Tooley

by Mark Tooley@markdtooley

Recently I passed the above United Methodist church touting its anti-gun stance. United Methodism has officially backed gun control since the early 1960s. This stance is just one of many examples of official Methodism’s post-Social Gospel political perfectionism.

Wesleyan perfectionism, as conceived by John Wesley, emphasized that the individual Christian, relying on the Holy Spirit, constantly seeks the perfection of Christ. For this reason, United Methodist ordinands pledge they are “going on to perfection.” There is never to be complacency about sin. Christ is both our strength and our goal.

But Wesley was ever a grounded realist. He didn’t counsel that a Christian make plans for tomorrow as though all sin were overcome. The struggle for holiness is lifelong. We must be always aware of our fallen inclinations, avoiding temptation where possible, and seeking forgiveness when needed, which is often, while trusting God will keep us under His watch as we trust in Him.

And Wesley certainly never counseled that Christians should operate socially and politically as though the effects of all or most sin in the world were already vanquished. Again, he was a realist. Most, even in nominally Christian cultures, are not living seriously Christian, he certainly knew, as he toiled to spiritually vivify nominally Christian Britain. And even the devout are constrained in their redemptive work by their own stumbles and finite understandings.

Politically, Wesley was adamantly the realist. He stalwartly supported the British constitutional system of crown and parliament because he thought, for all its imperfections, it provided an approximate social good preferable to the alternatives. Unlike the Puritan regime of the previous century, which sought rule by the saints, Britain in Wesley’s day was governed by sinners constrained by balances of power. This system did not assume virtue but assumed human frailty while at its best incentivizing virtue.

Wesley didn’t approve of the American Revolution because, once again as the realist, he thought it could not improve on Britain’s constitutional system. But likely had Wesley lived longer he would have at least grudgingly realized that the new American constitutional system replicated many of the assumptions of Britain’s arrangement. He would have certainly agreed with James Madison’s explanation that government in this world is not of angels and must instead factor fallen human nature. Madison and the other Founders created a regime where competing interests would balance against each other, inhibiting too much power to any one segment.

Of course, Wesley believed in social reform, which he thought chiefly the work of the church as it evangelizes and disciples. But he also favored the pursuit of just laws that at least approximated the lofty justice of God’s kingdom without pretending that God’s Kingdom could be completed through human law. He likely would have agreed with America’s Founders that in the wider body politic, enlightened self-interest is usually the best for which to hope even in the very best of times.

The Social Gospel 100 years after Wesley’s death inverted the pursuit of perfection, making it chiefly political and systemic, not personal and spiritually redemptive. This new spin on Christianity imagined God’s Kingdom could be realized through mobilization and legislation. A perfected society would then perfect individual souls. Wesley would have thought the whole project absurd.

So much of Wesley’s understanding of political order in a fallen world has been erased from collective memory that I have suggested Wesleyans should ponder the Calvinist example regarding human limitations. But as Wesley well knew, even Calvinists have at times dreamt of politically consummating the Kingdom of God. Christians of all stripes must be always on guard against utopianism and even less sweeping forms of social perfectionism. Social arrangements with modest goals that recognize the central power of self-interest should inform Christian political witness.

Liberal Christians must be warned against trusting expansive welfare and regulatory states to defeat poverty, against naive international peacemaking, against pretending that human laws can redirect global climate, against romanticizing illegal immigration as biblical sojourning, against pretending that global energy needs can depend on windmills, the sun and seaweed, and against ignoring the limited and chiefly punitive vocation of the state in restraining evil.

Conservatives Christians are usually more comfortable admitting the limits of human nature. But we also must acknowledge in our fallen world, this side of the eschaton, there will always be abortion, sexual immorality, intoxication, blasphemy, corruption, gambling and every form of human vice, even in the very best of societies. We can pray and labor to bring down the most egregious high places of rebellion against God’s purposes. But the struggle is ongoing and never complete. We mustn’t romanticize a past that never existed or fantasize about a perfected society built by our own hands.

God is always redemptively at work in our sinful, tumultuous world. Personally and politically, we should seek to align with His purposes, as best we understand, realizing our own limitations, and having confidence only in His perfection.

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