One of the markers of Protestantism, from the start and especially in the current evolutionary stage, is the purity spiraling of those still seeking the perfect church on their own terms. In a sense, the protest of Protestantism never has ended and continues to fracture the Western church into oblivion.
As a product of that way of thinking, I had always sought after and argued for my own ideal for the church. It could very well, if I was slightly more ambitious, had eventually led to the formation of the Perfect Church of Joel. That is what many Protest-ants do when they become disillusioned with the tradition they were born into, they protest and start their own new and ‘perfect’ church.
Of course, the shine of these fresh attempts to reform or restore the ‘original’ church is soon burnished. The next generation comes along, or disagreement comes up between these idealistic individuals, and soon spawns the next Protestant group, and the next after that, and the next after that, ad infinitum.
The Seeker Versus Slanderer
The concluding end of Protestantism is only perfect disunity, with everyone staying at home on Sunday as to be away from those other hypocrites and to do church right their own way. And, yes, if you’re thinking of the retired Burger King “have it your way” slogan, that might as well be the banner over these endeavors. Protestantism is the church for the consumerist age. It is defined by individualism, marketing campaigns, and seeker-sensitivity, or alternatively, pride, perpetual discontentment, and perfectionism.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Like now, there was also self-aggrandizement in the early church:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.(3 John 1:9,10 NIV)
There was plenty to criticize in the early church. There was sin overlooked or even celebrated locally, there were cliques of those of higher social status and those left out, arguments among leaders, and plenty for someone to be dissatisfied with. But Diotrephes took things a step further, he rejected church unity altogether, refused even the Apostles, and I’m sure, in his own eyes, his theology was impeccable. However, it is quite evident that Diotrephes had put himself first and, despite his inflated ego, was as sinful as those whom he arrogantly slandered or shut out.
There is no indication that Diotrephes ever wavered in his commitment to himself and his own understanding, it is quite possible that he remained inordinately impressed with himself until his last breath, but we certainly should not follow his example.
This is what we should seek after:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.(Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV)
Casting Pearls Before Swine
Had I still been seeking a perfect church I would not have become Orthodox and I would not have joined your silly cult group either. I can pretty much rip anything to shreds with my critical spirit and, at the right point in my life, would’ve been one of those that Jesus advised his disciples about, saying:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.(Matthew 7:6 NIV)
It is likely not a coincidence that this quotation above follows Jesus saying “judge not, or you too will be judged” and recommends us taking the beam out of our own eyes first.
There is nothing to be gained by dialogue with a cynical and divisive skeptic. They aren’t there to learn, they are there to tear you apart as a means to prove their own superiority or justify themselves. Their goal is not to understand, it is to trip you up so that they can smear mud in your face. I think we all know the type. They live for controversy, for an opportunity to debate and disparage.
Do not engage these people. They are not seeking after the unity described by St Paul. They are proud, self-righteous, demanding, and never satisfied.
No, these contentious people are no more hopelessly lost than anyone else. They may be sincerely seeking and yet will not be argued or logically driven from their own position. However, despite their perpetual restlessness as a result of hidden uncertainty or insecurity, they cannot see the folly of their own way and are only engaging you to feel better about themselves. They will ridicule and mock because it distracts from their own inner lack of peace.
It is not worth arguing with someone who is focused on the imperfections of everyone else. They will need to come to terms with their own imperfection first and by not arguing with them you give them that space they need to turn their inquiry inward. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us, he did not say to try to argue and persuade those not truly interested in hearing or considering their own need for repentance.
I’ve spent years of my life trying to convince people. I believed that people were changed by means of the mind, that we were rational creatures, and could employ reason to drive people to a correct perspective. But there is more to than that and, as a wise uncle recited to me years ago, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The pigheaded, those blinded by their own bias, will stomp, snort and sneer at anything they don’t want to accept. Without a change of heart, without repentance, trying to engage with them is a waste of time.
Correcting Our Orientation
Looking back the problem is clear. The divisions in the denomination that I was born into, the conservative versus liberal, had to do with a horizontal rather than vertical focus. We were oriented wrong. We thought we should be unified by our shared standards, our understanding of theology, and purity on our own terms. But the reality is that this was an approach that led to quarrels and a form of religious pride disguised as righteousness. Had we been oriented towards Christ we would have been more understanding of our own continual need of salvation and thus been more forgiving of faults and differences.
Seeking perfection in the church brings division and self-centeredness.
Seeking perfection in Christ brings unity and healing to the imperfect church.
Many seek the perfect church at the expense of following Christ who spent his time with losers. They neglect to notice that the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul are full of examples of failure. Even the leaders of the church, Peter himself, had to be “opposed to his face” (Galatians 2:11-13) and call him out for hypocrisy. So who are we that we think that we are somehow cut from a better cloth than the Apostle themselves and can create a better church better than the one that they left for us?
Sure, the history of the church is full of imperfection and failure. There were heresies that gained traction and even leaders that got out of line. But why are we seeking perfection in the church? Shouldn’t we be seeking after Christ, who loved us while we were still lost in sin, who forgives us as we forgive others?
This was what Jesus told the disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.(John 13:34,35 NIV)
This idea of a pristine church, free of failures, abuses, or problems, flies in the face of our need for salvation and a Savior. It is pride, the biggest sin there is, and people trying to save themselves, that divides the church. It is an orientation that looks across the aisle rather than inward and upward, eyes that see every sin but our own. It is preferring that others conform to our own will and understanding over loving each other (as commanded) and valuing our Communion together.
I became Orthodox once I stopped chasing after the fantasy creature of a perfect church. I gave up on the sufficiency of my own reasoning and started putting unity in Christ over having things my own way in theology and practice. There never was a perfect church, at least not one perfect according to my own hopes, perspectives, or personal standards. But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.
The measure of true faith is how much we love those who do not deserve it, as Christ first loved us, and this starts with loving our brothers and sisters in the imperfect church:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.(Luke 6:36-38 NIV)
To be perfect, as our Father is perfect, is to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
12 thoughts on “Christian Answer to the Perfect Church Myth”
I agree wholeheartedly with your critique of the purity movements that lead to endless division. However, would you say that there is never a time for separation, even when the original churches push their members to do unbiblical things? You said, “But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.” Is there more than one such church?
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It’s not my place to say that what men did 500 years ago was wrong. But what I will say is that the result hasn’t been much of an improvement and continues to undermine the witness of the church. Jesus said that we would be known for our love for one another, St Paul urged unity, these are things of first order and are being too easily neglected in our time. As far as unbiblical, who decided what belonged in the Bible and are you satisfied with the interpretation of Scripture provided by most Protestants today?
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The last 500 years have seen a lot of failure in unity, that’s true. And I believe I agree with your main contention, that Christians need to live in humility and unity with each other. I’m willing to fellowship with any believer who is in submission to the catholic (universal) church, built on the testimony and teachings of the apostles.
My question is a clarificatory one, since I’m curious whether your position comes merely from a longing for unity of love and fellowship within the worldwide body of believers, or whether you believe that there should also be unity of organization and of practice based on the early medieval (and to an extent pre-medieval) practice of the Western church (including both Roman and Greek, because they hadn’t yet split).
So I have two hypothetical situations. Supposing that the church one belongs to condones going to war with other Christians, and in some cases encourages and may even require it. If there is a departure from the apostolic teaching, even if there is charismatic apostolic succession, could that be a sufficient reason for someone to leave that church and return to apostolic teaching?
Secondly, supposing that the Catholic or Orthodox Church had by the time of the 1500s devolved to the point where many Protestants are now (wrong interpretations of scripture, explaining away Jesus, emphasizing emotions as the Spirit, and devaluing baptism and Eucharist), would a Christian be right in separating and beginning a church that returns to the apostolic teaching?
There are questions that I’ve been very curious about, and have been especially curious about how the Catholic and Orthodox churches would answer them. And no, I’m not satisfied with Protestantism, though I see true Christians among them. I’m Anabaptist, and believe in most of the specifically Anabaptist interpretations of scripture.
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You did not choose to be Anabaptist. That was something that you have inherited and also a belief system that has evolved over time as well. My question is why remain a separatist? Why not act on your humility, keep your convictions, and pursue Communion with the Orthodox? Is it because you believe that there is nothing in our 2000 year history that can enhance your own understanding? Is it that you do not want to submit to those of a slightly different understanding of Scripture from your own?
I think the real answer is like my own prior to conversion. I was comfortable with where I was at. My conservative Mennonite made me feel special and was the only thing that I really knew. I had plenty of momentum in that direction and it was actually my pursuit of that which finally brought me to my knees. I do not think argument would have changed my mind. But God did answer my prayer of making the impossibility possible and that’s my only advice to you. If you are sincerely seeking, and not simply asking to ask, then pray with a spirit open to being directed by God and then walk in faith. In due course you will receive the answers that you need if you do.
If you do that and remain where you are, I make no judgment. Who am I to judge another man’s servants? But Fr Anthony did commend the Anabaptist “peace witness” and maybe that would be something worth bringing to the broader church community?
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Joel, you may be making some assumptions about my experience as an Anabaptist. I did choose to be one, and there have been times that I considered other possibilities. I am part of a church that believes in the faith as practiced by the pre-Nicene church (as much as that is possible to reconstruct), not in a typical conservative Anabaptist church with Protestant theology. Nor am I particularly separatist. I consider the Orthodox my brothers. My hope is indeed to help encourage better theology and practice in the broader church community. I agree with you that Anabaptists need to make some changes in their worship, and I’m working for people who are trying to encourage that. These things fell in place with me after a long journey and seeking prayerfully. Oh, and I’ve been to an Orthodox service, and really appreciated it. I don’t say all this to brag, but so that you know where I’m coming from.
My questions were honest ones. They are difficult questions that I’ve been trying to consider, and in which I have not been completely satisfied with either the Anabaptist or Orthodox (or Catholic) answers. I’m sorry if it seemed that I was being critical. I didn’t think of them as particularly harsh; I have asked many more difficult questions of Anabaptist church leaders (judging from your writing, probably you have too). If you don’t have an answer, that’s fine. Maybe it was too much to hope that I could hear an Orthodox position on those questions; maybe there isn’t a specific one.
In any case, thanks for the post. We all need to work together for unity.
My apologies if I have the wrong Lynn Martin in mind. There are many with that particular surname born into Mennonite religion. If you aren’t the Lynn Martin born into a Mennonite home or raised in a Mennonite community, then this is case of mistaken identity and I apologize. It’s funny though, I used to get very defensive when people would suggest that I did not choose to be Anabaptist. I would say that I did consider other possibilities, etc. But they were more right than I had known at the time.
Have you ever sat foot in an Orthodox church?
Have you ever been to an Orthodox liturgical service?
Have you ever ran some of your questions past an Orthodox priest?
Maybe I should be clearer. I don’t know whether I’m the Lynn Martin you know, but I was born into a Mennonite family and church. The reason I say that I chose it is that I chose to continue in the Anabaptist faith even when I left that church and seriously re-evaluated whether I wanted anything to do with Anabaptism. By the way, it was at that point that I attended an Orthodox service and had a very helpful discussion with a priest. I also consumed (and still consume) a great deal of Orthodox content. I resonate with a great deal of it, and don’t object to the rest so strongly as not to understand and appreciate it. But there are some major issues that I cannot agree with, and that’s why I’ve chosen the Anabaptists, with all their faults.
If that doesn’t count as choice to you, that’s fine. Even if I hadn’t chosen it, I fail to see why that should bother me much. The way by which a person came by a belief says nothing about its truth or falsity. Should an Orthodox Christian be worried that he isn’t objective about his beliefs because he was raised Orthodox? Certainly not. He should simply do his best to be objective, starting from where he is now. So I don’t see this question as a major issue. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t leave you with a false impression.
Why do you accept Anabaptists “with all their faults” and yet refuse based on what you perceive to be “major issues” with Orthodox Christianity?
How do you know the faults aren’t major issues and the major issues aren’t mere faults?
As far as many Orthodox not choosing the system they were born into. Absolutely! Many “cradle Orthodox” do not appreciate their tradition as much as those of us who had a choice (but really no choice) to join the church. Coal Region Orthodoxy, for example, is not very Orthodox in many regards and to the detriment of those churches. They didn’t choose Orthodoxy, they were born into it and they are as in danger of hell fire as anyone.
The choice seems to be a point of pride for most born Anabaptist types and this is likely explained by their “believer’s Baptism” inheritance. The reason I was defensive when challenged on my choice to be conservative Mennonite (or Anabaptist) is that the possibility of it not being a choice made me uncomfortable. Defensiveness is usually a product of pride and a desire not to seriously reexamine base assumptions.
In the end, I’m not asking you to be objective. Nobody is completely objective. I’m asking that you be open and to be open one must be humble. All I am asking is that you pray about those things, with an open heart, that you consider to be “major issues” and let God speak. Is that too much to ask? Since you are not objective and nobody is, what more can you do than ask God to show you?
Sure, I guess objective wasn’t the right word. Maybe open is a better word, though judicious might be better yet.
“Refuse” is a strong word to use, when I have much respect for Orthodoxy, and appreciate the many ways that your tradition kept good theology when our tradition had to dig in order to find it. (Though we did find it, although many have since traded their birthright for Protestantism.) I felt that I could choose either tradition with a good conscience. A few things tipped me toward Anabaptism. Some of them felt like major issues.
Pardon me for saying so, but from the way you characterize Anabaptism, you seem never to have experienced it at its best. The barbs that you throw honestly don’t apply to Anabaptism as a whole, but to certain churches that seem to have soured you toward it. I’ve seen churches like them, but I see the great good within our tradition, which many healthy churches maintain and live out. I refuse to judge any tradition by the worst people in it. In evaluating something, you need to be honest about the good as much as you are about the bad. I highly appreciate the analysis you’ve given to many ideas and situations; please do not sour me to that by being judgmental in this area.
I was reminded this morning of why I took the stance that I did in this blog to begin with. Our conversation was a bit of a merry-go-round, nothing of value appears to have been accomplished as far as convincing each other one way or another. This is part of something written by Abbot Tryphon and printed in the bulletin:
“Orthodoxy is increasingly becoming known in the West, and more and more people are being drawn to Her. But we don’t convert people to Orthodoxy by words and debate, but by the example of our lives. Judging others cannot be part of our witness to the truth of Orthodoxy. Giving witness to the transformational power of the Church is what convicts others to the truth of our faith.
We must pray for friends and loved ones who do not know the truth of Orthodoxy, yet we should also give thanks for those who know Jesus Christ. For we Orthodox, it is a joy to have God as our Father, while an extra benefit to have the church as our Mother. But lest we forget, it is of no value whatsoever to be Orthodox if we do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and if we do not truly love our neighbors.”
Please forgive me if I’ve offended.
Joel, I had left this conversation because I too felt it was going nowhere. I came back on a whim to see what you might have said, and I appreciate your response. You didn’t offend me, and I continue to appreciate your perspective, though I disagree with it. I’m glad you’ve found the beauty in the Eastern Orthodox tradition; my tradition can learn much from it. I continue to believe that yours can learn from mine as well. Iron can sharpen iron on more than one level.
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Btw, I’ve found that there is a far stronger emphasis on Jesus within Orthodoxy than there ever was in my Mennonite experience. The sermon in a Mennonite churches I knew were often topical and usually a religious issue that the particular preacher thought was important. Orthodox sermons, by contrast, tend to be about the Gospel text and more focused on Jesus. The liturgy also is more focused. Protestant hymns tend to center on human experience, how we feel, whereas Orthodox liturgy is 100% worship and prayer. As we say, “come and see!”
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