Why is Perfection Theology So Destructive?

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While recently reading Ellen White's Thoughts From the Mount of Blessings, I came across this remarkable series of statements: "Not by painful struggles or wearisome toil, not by gift or sacrifice is righteousness obtained but it is freely given to every soul who hungers and thirsts to receive it" (18). Ellen White wrote this in the context of Jesus’ declaration, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Matt 5: 6 (NIV). She goes on to say that no human can supply the hunger and thirst of the soul. . .that what each of us needs is to be continually communing with Christ and depending wholly on Him.

She continues, "As we discern the perfection of our Savior’s Character we shall desire to become wholly transformed and renewed in the image of his purity" (19). On the same page, it gets even better:

If you have a sense of need in your soul, if you hunger and thirst after righteousness, this is an evidence that Christ has wrought upon your heart, in order that He may be sought unto to do for you, through the endowment of the Holy Spirit, those things which it is impossible for you to do for yourself...

As I read this, I was struck by how forcefully Ellen White makes the case that a changed life is something that only Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, can do.

There are so many people who are no longer a part of the Adventist family who never saw this picture of Jesus. I was one of those. At 19 years of age, I walked away from the church. I left because the burden was heavy and the yoke crushing. As I have followed the recent resurgence of “Perfection” or “Last Generation Theology,” I shudder to think that we are going to drive another generation of youth away from the church at a time when we can ill afford further losses.

Those who subscribe to perfection theology produce a long list of Ellen White statements and Scripture quotes to support their point of view. They might be able to, in great detail, explain how the quotes I used above fit perfectly with the perfection viewpoint. Those who do not subscribe to the perfection theology will then reply with their own list of quotes from Ellen White and Scripture. So what do we do? Flip a coin? Count the total number of quotes, or words? I propose that a better way to look at this question is to examine how Perfection Theology impacts the lives of Seventh-day Adventists.

I know only a few zealous believers in perfection theology and none claim they have reached perfection. Their hope seems to lie in being less sinful than others so that, if God is going to save anyone, it will more likely be them.

Here is why I believe perfection theology is so destructive:

1. It is a message only for those who want to be highly self-disciplined. If one is highly self-disciplined, one has a chance at becoming a part of the perfection community. If not, one will feel out of touch and unwelcome. It requires self-discipline of thought as well as behavior. This creates massive dissonance for those whose God-given mind ponders difficult issues such as the science of creation, gay and lesbian Christians, and why bad things happen to good people. Yet for all of this, the Gospels are clear that Jesus loved those who lived messy, undisciplined lives too. He proclaimed salvation was available to all, that perhaps it was more available to the undisciplined than the highly self-disciplined.

Many Adventists have responded by giving up all hope and assume they will go to hell. Given this assumption, they might as well leave the church and God behind and go have some fun. Others manage to find their way to another Christian church, one they find more welcoming and less oppressive. The cynic would argue they went to a place where they could live a more sinful lifestyle, and this may even be true for some, but for many it is a way to find joy and peace they could not find in the absolute sense of constant inferiority.

2. Perfection theology makes behavior the focus of one’s Christian life. It is all about putting maximum effort into reducing one’s sin quotient. It consumes time and energy. It is further complicated by the fact that one can never truly know they have reached perfection and so one has to keep striving. It becomes exhausting. It makes the focus of Christian living self rather than Jesus and the lost. This self-ward focus on behavior was one of critical issues Jesus addressed during his time on earth. Ultimately, Jesus demonstrated that living a Christian life was about two things: Loving God and loving other human beings. Just imagine the impact our church would have on our communities if we spent as much time and energy caring for “the least of these” as we do worrying about our own behavior.

3. It is isolating. Perfectionists tend to find or create monastic communities. For some, it is a physical community within their church and for others it is a virtual community, creating walls and isolation with books and tapes and the Internet. It is a necessary construct in order to keep each other pumped up and focused on the goal of perfect living. It is also necessary to isolate oneself from the outside world, including those who are in the church but who do not treat perfection seriously enough. It makes it extremely hard to do serious relational evangelism because one has to be constantly on guard.

Jesus’ explicit command was to go make disciples, not to go out and live sin-free lives. What I see in those who subscribe to perfection theology is an obsession with getting it right. Do they evangelize? Some do, maybe even most do, but it becomes the secondary, not the primary, task.

4. Perfection theology is an act of unfaith. It ultimately posits that “God is not capable of saving mankind without my effort”. It makes God and salvation dependent on man. Fundamentally, it is a denial of the promise of Jesus in John 10:10 to give us live more abundantly. Perfection theology suggests that we must live a life that focuses more on works than on faith in order to earn salvation and heaven. Behind the quotes and verses, perfection theology is a very real and very dangerous form of legalism.
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Steve Moran works in Silicon Valley. He is the head elder of his church and a member of the Central California Conference Executive Committee.

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